Articles Posted in Sexual Harassment

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America is in the middle of a social reckoning. Brave women are standing up and telling their stories of sexual harassment, assault, or other abuses by men in positions of power through use of the hashtag, #MeToo. The #MeToo movement, focused primarily on sharing stories of abuse, evolved into a call for action and female empowerment aptly named #TimesUp.  Although there has long been legal recourse found in our federal and state law for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace and/or victims of retaliation for reporting it, women today are being believed and vindicated on a larger scale than ever seen before. Here in New Jersey, our Law Against Discrimination (LAD) employees protects women and men alike from sexual harassment in the workplace. There are two kinds of sexual harassment: (1) quid pro quo, which is an agreement or an offer to receive a benefit (promotion, raise, continued employment, etc.) in exchange for the performance of sexual favors; or (2) a sexually hostile work environment, where, for example, a co-worker makes unwelcome and offensive sexual comments and/or advances. Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587 (1993). Any person who aids, abets, or otherwise assists in the harassment is in violation of the LAD. N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(e).

To prove the existence of a hostile work environment under the LAD, an employee must demonstrate that the conduct in question was unwelcome, that it occurred because of his or her sex, and that a reasonable person of the same sex would consider it sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Id.  However, a victim of harassment should be mindful that the LAD is not intended to be “a ‘general civility’ code” for conduct in the workplace.'” Mandel v. UBS/PaineWebber, Inc., 373 N.J. Super. 55, 73 (App. Div. 2004) certif. denied, 183 N.J. 213 (2005). “‘[D]iscourtesy or rudeness should not be confused with [protected status-based] harassment.'” Ibid.

The LAD expressly protects workers from retaliation for having reported sexual harassment of themselves or coworkers. This includes retaliation in the form of a hostile work environment, demotion, failure to promote, transfer, cut in pay or benefits, unpaid suspension, wrongful discharge, or even “constructive discharge”.  A constructive discharge occurs when an employer takes no official action, but creates a work environment so hostile and unbearable that a reasonable employee would have no choice but to resign.

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Under the federal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) workers are protected from sexual harassment in the workplace. There are two kinds of sexual harassment; (1) quid pro quo –agreement to perform sexual favors to receive a benefit (promotion, raise, continued employment, etc.); or (2) a sexually hostile work environment, where, for example, a co-worker makes unwelcome and offensive sexual comments and/or advances.

Showing harassment through a hostile work environment requires a plaintiff to show: (1) objectively, a reasonable person would find such an environment hostile or abusive; (2) subjectively, the plaintiff perceives the environment as hostile or abusive; (3) the hostile environment is so severe or pervasive that someone can’t function or perform work properly; and (4) the hostile work environment was sexually motivated, in other words because of a characteristic protected by Title VII and LAD. There are two ways with which a workplace environment can be considered so hostile that someone can’t function or perform work properly; (1) a single incident occurred that was extraordinarily severe/egregious; or (2) a series of incidents was sufficiently continuous and concerning to have altered the conditions of the working environment.

If an employer has workplace policies in place to prevent and rectify harassment and the employee must take advantage of those procedures before bringing a harassment claim. This is known or referred to as the “Faragher-Ellerth defense”. See Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998); Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998). Such procedures can include having a Human Resources department which accepts and reviews harassment complaints, and if concluding that harassment took place, acts appropriately against those perpetrating the harassment. However, if an employee does complain about harassment, and management, concluding harassment took place, does not move to rectify, and prevent future harassment, then the employer can be held liable for the harassment which took place.