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Recent Court Cases Highlight the Epidemic of Workplace Harassment

Two recent New Jersey court cases further demonstrate that unlawful workplace harassment can occur in any industry, at any level, targeting employees of all demographics. Despite this fact, some workplaces are more susceptible to experiencing harassment than others. One such industry is the restaurant and hospitality industry. According to a recent study conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, more restaurant and hospitality workers submitted complaints of workplace harassment than any other industry specified in the study. To some, this may seem predictable because of the frequency of late shifts, the presence of alcohol, and a reliance on tips in this industry.

One recent lawsuit that has received attention from local media originated from an employee of the well known Snuffy’s Steakhouse in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. In a complaint recently filed, Alston Shakera v. Snuffy Pantagis ENT. Inc., Alston alleged that she came out of the bathroom to find a busboy exposing himself, and then physically grabbing her when she refused his advances. Prior to this, Alston had been subject to a consistent pattern of sexually harassing comments and unwanted contact by both coworkers and customers. While this may seem like an extreme example of workplace sexual harassment, experts say that employees of restaurants are subject to unwanted touching and lewd remarks or text messages at a particularly high rate.

The restaurant industry is clearly not the only workplace plagued by unlawful harassing behavior. In another recent sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the Mountainside Police Department, several employees have alleged they were subjected to severe harassment and torment stemming including regular homophobic comments, sexual advances and even aggravated assault.

According to several employees of the Department who also joined in the lawsuit Jeffrey Stinner v. The Borough of Mountainside, the Chief of the Police Department, a lieutenant of the Police Department, and a Detective Sergeant, engaged in increasingly harassing and disturbing behavior, dating back to 2005. Some examples of this behavior included assaulting and harassing officers and dispatchers through the use of a plastic model of male genitals, as well as by placing their genitals on the food and drink of officers. The men further made harassing and disturbing comments to females in the office, creating a hostile and discriminatory work environment for these women. The Chief was additionally accused of pointing his gun at officers who irritated him, which is an element of aggravated assault in New Jersey.

A lawsuit against the perpetrators was filed by six department employees in mid-May, and all three accused officers have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation. The counts brought forth by the complaint include a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”), alleging a hostile work environment as well as retaliation against the employees who had complained about the abuse and harassment.

In order to qualify as a violation of the NJLAD, harassing behavior must be considered by a reasonable person to be sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment, and to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. The conduct must have had the effect of reasonably interfering with a person’s work experience and having the potential to affect the person’s psychological well-being.

Recent cases such as these demonstrate that harassment can occur in any industry and has highly damaging effects on the targeted employees and the entire workplace. The justice system and the public have become increasingly sympathetic towards victims of workplace harassment, and these cases further serve to exemplify the importance of addressing these concerns with experienced employment lawyers who can advise the aggrieved employee of their legal rights and possible remedies.