Employment discrimination or harassment claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination usually involve actions by specific employees, supervisors, managers, or executives. In order to make a successful New Jersey employment discrimination claim, a plaintiff must establish that the employer is legally responsible for the actions of that person or those people. This is known as “vicarious liability.” The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled in favor of a plaintiff in her hostile work environment lawsuit, reversing the trial court’s summary judgment for the defendant. The appellate court held that the plaintiff had raised a question as to whether her alleged harasser had acted within his authority as a supervisor when he told the plaintiff to “leave and don’t come back.”
Hostile work environment is a type of sexual harassment that occurs when one or more people engage in unwelcome sexual conduct to the point that a reasonable person would consider it to render the workplace hostile. An employer can be held vicariously liable for a hostile work environment perpetrated by any employee, even if they do not have authority over the plaintiff, as long as the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to act.
The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2015 that defined a rule for determining whether vicarious liability should apply to an employer in sexual harassment and similar claims, when the alleged harasser was in a position of authority over the plaintiff. It based this rule on the Ellerth/Faragher analysis, named after two Supreme Court rulings from 1998, Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. Boca Raton. The Ellerth/Faragher analysis states that a defendant can avoid vicarious liability if it can establish three elements:
1. It “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior”;
2. The plaintiff “unreasonably failed to take advantage of” the remedies offered by the employer; and
3. The plaintiff was not subject to any “tangible employment action” by the alleged harasser.