Articles Posted in Sexual Harassment

The New York City Council unanimously passed a bill in late March 2014 amending the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) to extend the anti-discrimination provisions of the law to unpaid interns. A 2013 federal court case, in which an unpaid intern filed suit for sexual harassment and hostile work environment, inspired the bill. The court dismissed the intern’s claims because city and state law, it found, do not apply to interns. Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television US, No. 1:13-cv-00218, mem. order (S.D.N.Y., Oct. 3, 2013).

The plaintiff in Wang was a graduate student in journalism at Syracuse University in December 2009 when she began working as an unpaid intern for the American subsidiary of Phoenix Media Group, a television news company based in Hong Kong. She viewed the internship as a training opportunity, with the possibility of a full-time job after she graduated. She reported to the Washington DC bureau chief, who also oversaw operations in New York.

While the bureau chief was in New York one night in January 2010, she and several employees met him at a restaurant. She alleged in her lawsuit that he asked her to stay after the meal to discuss job prospects, then invited her back to his hotel. He allegedly made sexual comments that made her uncomfortable, but she felt that she could not refuse his invitation to go to his room because he was her boss. Once they were alone, he allegedly threw his arms around her, groped her, and attempted to kiss her. She broke free of him and left the hotel. After that, she claims, he ceased to express any interest in hiring her.
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A federal lawsuit accuses a New York business of firing the plaintiff in retaliation for his report of unlawful employment practices. Giraldo v. The Change Group New York, Inc., et al, No. 1:14-cv-00375, complaint (S.D.N.Y., Jan. 21, 2014). The plaintiff, who is a gay man, also alleges that he was subjected to ongoing sexual harassment, discrimination, and a hostile work environment based on sexual orientation. The lawsuit asserts causes of action for retaliation, discrimination, and harassment in violation of federal, state, and city law.

The plaintiff was employed as a sales consultant by a currency exchange group in Manhattan from December 2012 until November 2013. He alleges multiple instances of harassment by two managers in the office, including inappropriate comments about his sexual orientation. One of the managers allegedly displayed similar behavior towards female employees and customers on a regular basis. The plaintiff claimed that he also frequently made “ethnically and racially discriminatory comments towards African American employees,” Muslim employees, and the plaintiff, who is Hispanic of Colombian descent.

In a seemingly-anonymous email sent to company executives just after midnight on October 8, 2013, the plaintiff complained about the two managers’ allegedly widespread discrimination and harassment. He identified multiple specific instances of inappropriate sexual and racial comments directed to the plaintiff, and inappropriate comments and behavior directed at others. He also noted his concern that speaking out publicly would cost him his job, as people who expressed dissenting opinions were often “squashed or treated as heretics” by the managers. He specifically stated that if he attached his name to the email, he believed he would be fired.
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A lawsuit filed in a New Jersey Superior Court against a police department and several police officials seeks over $1 million in damages for alleged race discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation. The plaintiff in Cruz v. Old Bridge Police Department, et al alleges that the department ignored her repeated complaints of sexual harassment because of her race, and then subjected her to retaliation and a hostile work environment that prevented her from returning to work. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) protects workers from employment discrimination based on factors like race and sex, and includes sexual harassment as a form of gender discrimination.

The plaintiff, according to local news coverage, was hired in May 2004 as an auxiliary police officer for the Old Bridge Police Department. This is a part-time position that works certain events, assisting the police department by providing crowd and traffic control. She alleges that a lieutenant began sexually harassing her shortly after she was divorced by asking her questions and making comments of an inappropriate sexual nature, and with direct sexual advances. She asserts that she asked him to stop and reported the matter to the department’s Internal Affairs unit, but the harassment continued.

When the lieutenant was promoted to captain, he became the plaintiff’s direct supervisor. She claims that he created a hostile work environment by “ostraciz[ing] here” and behaving in a “disrespectful and…demeaning manner.” The department ignored her complaints, she claims, because she is a black Hispanic woman. She received a charge of “conduct unbecoming” that she claims was false, and in September 2011 she was suspended without pay for allegedly submitting false time records in order to increase her pay. She also denies this charge. The department did not fire her, but reportedly also did not set an end date for her suspension. The township listed her employment status as “did not return,” according to the Home News Tribune. She either quit or was terminated by the department in December 2011.
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A plaintiff could not maintain a sexual harassment complaint because the defendant was not her employer under state or federal law, according to a recent appellate court ruling. Plaso v. IJKG, LLC, No. 13-2565, slip op. (3rd Cir., Jan. 21, 2014). The plaintiff worked at the defendant’s business location, and the sexual harassment forming the basis of her complaint allegedly took place there. Her salary and the authority to hire or fire her, however, originated with another company. Although the court ruled against the plaintiff, she was able to settle claims with the alleged harasser and the company that employed both of them. The case offers useful guidance for New Jersey workers considering a claim sexual harassment or other forms of employment discrimination
The U.S. Supreme Court developed a three-part test to determine whether a party is an “employer” in Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Darden, 503 U.S. 318 (1992), and the Third Circuit has adopted the test for Title VII and other laws. It identifies the party that has “the right to control the manner and means” of the plaintiff’s employment, id. at 323-24, through three “indicia of control”: (1) who pays the worker’s salary, (2) who has the right to hire and fire the worker, and (3) who controls the worker’s “daily employment activity.” Plaso, slip op. at 9, quoting Covington v. Intern. Ass’n of Approved Basketball, 710 F.3d 114, 119 (3rd Cir. 2013).

The plaintiff began working for a consulting firm based in Ohio, Healthcare MCR, in early 2008. Her direct supervisor, R. Brent Martin, assigned her to work at the office of a client, Bayonne Medical Center (BMC) in Bayonne, New Jersey. Martin also worked there as Chief Restructuring Officer. The plaintiff worked at BMC five days a week; had her own office, along with telephone and email account; and interacted with BMC staff on a daily basis. Martin was usually working at BMC, and the plaintiff went through him for most employment concerns, such as work hours and leave. Her paycheck came from Healthcare.
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Three employees of the King County Sheriff’s Office will reportedly receive $1 million as part of a workplace sexual harassment settlement. In their lawsuit, three female Sheriff’s Office workers claim two of their male supervisors in the Special Assault Unit made lewd comments and exhibited other inappropriate behavior towards them. The two men are also accused of mocking the sexual assault victims the department works to protect and engaging in retaliation against the three women. According to the female employees, their formal complaints regarding the inappropriate conduct were dismissed or ignored for several years. Because of the County’s alleged indifference to the offending behavior, the women eventually filed a sexual harassment lawsuit that was accompanied by the sworn statement of at least six current and former Sheriff’s Office workers.

Prior to settling the case, a newly elected Sheriff, John Urquhart, transferred the two men accused of perpetrating the alleged harassment to different units. In the case, the women sought a combined total of up to $9 million in compensation for the emotional distress each female employee reportedly endured at work. Following mediation, the women agreed to split a $1 million sum three ways. The plaintiffs also demanded that the Sheriff’s Office provide annual sexual harassment training to workers and issue a formal apology. King County agreed to comply with both additional demands, but refused to admit liability as part of the settlement agreement.

Although this case occurred in Washington, it shows that sexual harassment can happen at any workplace. In New Jersey, most employment law complaints allege sexual harassment or sex discrimination. According to data from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, more than 600 sexual harassment or discrimination cases were filed in the State of New Jersey in 2011. Additionally, the number of sexual harassment claims filed in New Jersey has reportedly increased by approximately 10 percent since 2006. If you believe that you suffered workplace sexual harassment or discrimination, you should discuss your rights with a skilled New Jersey employment lawyer.
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New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman recently announced that his office has settled a sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination lawsuit filed against a Syracuse mortuary school and its president in 2011. As part of the settlement, the Simmons Institute of Funeral Services and Maurice Wightman agreed to pay restitution to a number of former instructors and students who filed complaints against the school and to implement reforms designed to ensure future harassment and discrimination do not occur. Additionally, both the school and Wightman agreed to refrain from engaging in any sort of retaliation against the women who filed complaints against the institution and to immediately report any future harassment or discrimination allegations to the Office of the Attorney General.

According to the lawsuit, Wightman made sexual comments and inappropriately touched female students. He also allegedly refused to allow both pregnant students and faculty to engage in certain activities despite doctor approval. Ironically, Wightman is reportedly the private for-profit school’s designated contact for all discrimination and harassment complaints.

In New York, discrimination on the basis of a woman’s pregnancy constitutes unlawful sex discrimination. Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits any educational institution that receives federal funds from engaging in sex discrimination in education. Additionally, both New York and federal law require employers and educators to refrain from engaging in pregnancy discrimination.
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A bill that was recently introduced in the New York Legislature would provide unpaid interns with many of the same statutory protections that employees across the state currently enjoy. S05951 would make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against interns who are members of a protected class. If the proposed measure is approved, interns would be legally protected from discrimination based upon race, creed, age, national origin, color, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, and other factors. It would also provide unpaid employees with both sexual harassment and whistleblower protections.

The bill was introduced by democratic lawmaker Liz Krueger of Manhattan. She stated a recent New York federal court ruling in which an intern’s sexual harassment lawsuit was dismissed for lack of standing under the New York Human Rights Law demonstrates the need for the proposed legislation. In the past, some courts have also held that interns are not afforded the same protections as employees under federal civil rights laws. If the proposed measure is passed, New York will become the second state to provide unpaid interns with substantially similar legal protections as paid employees. Oregon enacted a so-called intern rights law in June.

Employers in New York, New Jersey, and throughout the nation are not legally required to treat each worker fairly. For example, in some situations an employer may engage in nepotism, favoritism, or simple “office politics.” An employee who is treated poorly may only seek legal action where the discrimination was based on a legally protected status. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from discriminating against a worker based on race, religion, color, sex, or national origin. Both the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law prohibit employment discrimination based on gender and other factors. New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination also makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate in any job-related action on the basis of one or more of the statute’s protected categories.
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In early August, an arbitrator awarded a former Long Branch School District worker $4.5 million. In a 2011 civil complaint filed against the school district and prior Superintendent Joseph Ferraina, the former secretary alleged that she was sexually assaulted by and forced to perform sex acts for Ferraina beginning in 2004. The woman also stated Ferraina threatened her with termination if she reported the abuse. According to the former secretary, the school board ignored her complaints regarding the allegedly hostile work environment and instead engaged in a cover-up. Eventually, the woman apparently suffered a nervous breakdown. Ferraina retired from his position at the end of June.

Following a non-binding arbitral hearing, a former Monmouth County judge who acted as arbitrator in the case found in favor of the former secretary. Still, either side of the case may disagree with the arbitrator’s recommendation and file a “trial de novo” before 30 days pass. By doing so, the non-binding arbitral decision would be rendered moot.

As this case shows, one type of sexual harassment is quid pro quo sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment may arise when a supervisor conditions a worker’s employment upon his or her submission to sexual advances or demands. As allegedly occurred here, an employee may have a claim for quid pro quo sexual harassment if a supervisor makes him or her feel as if sexual advances must be tolerated in order to keep a job, obtain a raise, be promoted, or to avoid discipline, a demotion, or other negative work-related consequences.
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In August, an undisclosed settlement was reached in a highly publicized sexual harassment and race discrimination case. According to a document filed in a Savannah, Georgia federal court, both sides agreed to settle a lawsuit that was filed against celebrity television cook Paula Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers. The case was brought by a former manager at Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House. The woman’s complaint alleged that the restaurant’s employment practices treated black workers unfairly. She also claimed that she endured sexual harassment from Hiers and was forced to listen to racially offensive statements at work. Before a settlement was reached, a federal judge threw out the white woman’s race discrimination claims for lack of standing.

A nationwide uproar against Deen began after she apparently admitted to making racially derogatory statements during a deposition related to the case. As a result, the celebrity’s television show was cancelled and a number of retailers reportedly dropped her numerous product lines. Prior to the lawsuit, the Paula Deen franchise was reportedly worth millions. At the request of the parties, the case was dismissed with prejudice.

In New York, New Jersey, and across the rest of the country, employers are not legally required to treat all of their workers fairly. For example, an employer may engage in nepotism, favoritism, or simple “office politics.” An employee who is treated unfairly may seek legal action only if the discrimination resulted from his or her gender, race, age, religion, pregnancy status, a mental or physical disability, color, national origin, sexual orientation, veteran or military status, or another legally protected status.
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The New Jersey Division of Civil Rights has reportedly reached a settlement agreement with a party company that stood accused of ignoring the alleged sexual harassment of a Paramus teenager. According to the Division, the teen endured unwelcome sexual advances and inappropriate comments from a male supervisor for about eight months. In a formal complaint, the teen also told the Division that her former supervisor sent her harassing text messages on her mobile telephone. After the minor female reported the alleged harassment to the company’s co-owner, the teenager claims Screamin’ Parties of Paramus wrongfully terminated her.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the party company must pay the teenager $15,000 and provide all workers with anti-discrimination training. The company also reportedly agreed to establish an effective harassment complaint procedure. Division Director Craig T. Sashihara stated the settlement was a fair one. He added that the teen is entitled to the same protections more experienced workers enjoy.

Employers in New Jersey and New York are required to provide all employees, regardless of age, with a working environment that is free from sexual and other unlawful harassment. An employer’s failure to adequately address workers who violate sexual harassment policies can expose a company to potential lawsuits and place additional workers at risk for mistreatment.

The vast majority of employment law cases in New Jersey involve sexual harassment or discrimination. According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there were 624 sexual harassment or discrimination cases filed in New Jersey in 2011. Additionally, the number of sexual harassment complaints filed in our state has reportedly increased by 10 percent since 2006. At the same time, the number of such complaints has dropped by 5.5 percent across the country as a whole.

Sexual harassment and discrimination may be committed by a superior or a co-worker. In some cases, an employer may be held accountable for the inappropriate acts of coworkers who commit sexual harassment. If you suffered workplace sexual harassment or discrimination, you owe it to yourself to contact a skilled New Jersey or New York employment lawyer to discuss your rights.
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