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CLAIMANT WHO VOLUNTARILY LEFT HER EMPLOYMENT BECAUSE OF A HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT IS ELIGIBLE FOR UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently affirmed a Board of Review decision finding that an employee who quit her job as a result of a hostile work environment is eligible for unemployment benefits. In the matter of Allied Interior Contractors v. Board of Review, the claimant quit her job because of a pattern of sexist, vulgar and degrading comments regarding woman that were made by the President of the company in her presence.

The Appeal Tribunal initially disqualified the claimant from receiving unemployment benefits by finding that she left her employment without good cause attributable to her employment. Specifically, the Appeal Tribunal concluded that the claimant failed to show that she left her employment for good cause because none of the offensive comments were directed at her and because she had never complained to her employer regarding her complaints of a hostile work environment. The Appeal Tribunal went as far as to state that the claimant “condoned” the behavior by failing to inform the employer that she found the remarks offensive.

In reversing the Appeal Tribunal’s decision disqualifying the claimant from receiving unemployment benefits, the Board of Review relied upon on the seminal New Jersey case, Lehman v. Toy ‘R’ Us, Inc. 132 N.J. 587 (1993), which defines a hostile work environment based upon sexual harassment. In Toy ‘R’ Us, the New Jersey Supreme Court defined a hostile work environment based upon sexual harassment as discriminatory conduct that a reasonable person of the same sex in the plaintiff’s position would consider sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. With this legal standard in mind, the Board of Review noted that evidence of sexual harassment directed at woman at the workplace other than the claimant is still relevant to the character of the work environment and the effect it had on the claimant. The Board of Review took further note that the President of the company routinely reminded his employees that they could leave if they did not like his comments as a legitimate reason justifying the claimant’s failure to complain about the working conditions.

In upholding the Appeal Tribunal’s decision finding the claimant eligible for unemployment benefits, the Appellate Division refused to disturb the Board of Review’s factual findings that the workplace atmosphere was pervaded by the daily use of degrading remarks about women, including comments such as “bitch”, “dumb bitch” and “stupid blonde bitch.” The Appellate Division noted that the constant use of such degrading remarks toward women created a hostile work environment toward the claimant regardless of the fact that the claimant was not herself the target of such remarks. The fact that the claimant heard and was aware of the degrading comments were made was enough to create a hostile work environment against her, justifying her decision to voluntarily leave her employment and still be qualified to collect unemployment benefits.