Holiday Party Results in Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

The holidays should be a time to enjoy one another’s company and have fun. Many employers allow their workers an opportunity to unwind at least once a year at office holiday parties. The office holiday party has become, in some part of the public consciousness, synonymous with debauchery and excess. Unfortunately, some people actually do take the festive atmosphere of a holiday party too far, often with the assistance of alcohol, and inappropriate remarks, behavior, or contact may result. Employees should remember that an office holiday party is a work function, and that the same laws prohibiting harassment in the workplace apply at the party. A recent New York lawsuit demonstrates that employees who are the recipients of a supervisor’s inappropriate conduct have legal remedies.

Lesley Shiner, the plaintiff in Shiner v. State University of New York, University at Buffalo, et al, worked as a clerk for the University at Buffalo Dental School. At office holiday parties in 2008 and 2009, she claims that she witnessed two administrators, an assistant dean and the director of clinical operations, make a series of sexually explicit and inappropriate comments. Upon receiving an invitation to the 2010 holiday party, she informed her direct supervisor that she was not comfortable attending because of the administrators’ past behavior. Shiner attended the December 21, 2010 party despite her concerns. She alleges that, while at the party, the two administrators sexually assaulted her. One administrator, the associate dean, allegedly committed multiple acts of assault, while the other “encouraged and cheered” his behavior. She states that this occurred in the presence of other employees, including Shiner’s direct supervisor.

In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, Shiner asserted causes of action for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the university and the associate dean. She also asserted state and federal tort claims against the associate dean individually. The university moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the plaintiff had no viable claim for sexual harassment under Title VII. The court denied the motion, finding that she had produced sufficient evidence to make a prima facie case for harassment and hostile work environment.

Employers owe the same legal duties to their employees at office holiday parties as during the normal workday. This includes the duty to provide an environment reasonably free of harassment or hostility. Harassment can occur from a supervisor to a subordinate, or between co-workers. Executives, managers, supervisors, and others in leadership positions continue to bear responsibility for the office, even during a party, and an employee’s behavior or state of inebriation is not an excuse for a supervisor’s poor conduct.

Not every employer has policies in place for dealing with office harassment, particularly office party harassment. People who are the victims of harassment or assault during a holiday party should report it immediately to their direct supervisor if possible, or to the nearest available supervisor, in order to create a record.

If you need to speak to an employment law attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group at 973-781-1204 or (646) 867-7997.

More Blog Entries:

National Boss Day Gift – A Look at 25 Largest Employment Lawsuit Settlements, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 18, 2012
Sexual Harassment Costs New Jersey Millions – Many Offenders Remain on the Job, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 10, 2012
Sexual Harassment at New York’s Columbia University Led to Victim’s Firing, Employment Lawsuit Claims, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, September 26, 2012

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