Articles Posted in Hostile Work Environment

In a 2015 case entitled Aguas v. State of New Jersey, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted the federal standard regarding employer liability for workplace sexual harassment. For the first time, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an employer can avoid liability in situations where the workplace sexual harassment did not result in any tangible employment action if the employer can show (1) it has strong anti-harassment policies and effective reporting mechanisms and (2) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the policies and reporting procedures.

The Aquas ruling dramatically changed the manner in which sexual harassment cases have been litigated in New Jersey.  It has also served as a valuable reminder to all New Jersey employers of the importance of having strong anti-harassment policies in place to protect employees from sexual harassment.

The plaintiff in Aguas v. State of New Jersey, Ilda Aguas, was a corrections officer in the New Jersey Department of Corrections.  During her employment, Ms. Aguas began to experience objectionable sexual harassment at the hands of her supervisor, Lieutenant Darryl McClish. On multiple occasions, McClish both verbally and physically harassed Ms. Aguas, such as by asking her to go to a motel with him, forcing himself on her in imitation of a “lap dance”, and holding Ms. Aguas’s arms behind her back while pressing his genitals against her body and asking “what are you going to do?” Ms. Aguas objected to this behavior directly to McClish, who refused to cease the sexually harassing behavior. Ms. Aguas was additionally harassed by two other supervisors.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

TRENTON (February 6, 2019)–Following is a statement from Katie Brennan in response to the findings of Peter Verniero’s inquiry into the vetting and hiring processes of the Murphy administration’s transition office:

“It’s clear from the report that there was a lack of accountability and effective policies and procedures to address a glaring personnel problem in the Transition. I appreciate the recommended reforms and I look forward to seeing additional recommendations from the Joint Select Legislative Oversight Committee so that comprehensive reform can be implemented.

It is not uncommon when a sexual harassment claim is filed for controversy to arise regarding who exactly is liable for the harassment. In 1993, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in the case ‘Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us’ an employer may be liable if the sexual harasser was acting within the scope of his or her employment or if the employer was negligent for allowing the existence of a hostile work environment.  After the Lehman decision, questions remained concerning how victims of sexual harassment could prove that their employer was negligent and therefore liable for the sexual harassing conduct of one of its employees. In a 2002 case Maria Gaines v. Joseph Bellino, the New Jersey Supreme Court provided further clarification concerning an employer’s liability for workplace sexual harassment and established a framework for courts to determine whether an employer has an effective anti-harassment policy.

In Gaines v. Bellino, the plaintiff Maria Gaines was an employee of Hudson County Correctional Facility when she began to experience sexually harassing behavior from her supervisor, Captain Bellino. In 1990, Mr. Bellino forcibly kissed Ms. Gaines against her will. Ms. Gaines objected to the assault, and immediately reported it to several coworkers and some other higher level officials of the facility. She was encouraged to report the behavior, but expressed fear of retaliation as well as of Bellino himself. This fear was shared by multiple coworkers, and Gaines was further advised that the facility’s supervisors would most likely not believe her reports of the harassment. Because of this, Gaines chose not to submit a formal report regarding the behavior. Over the next few years, Gaines was subject to additional harassing incidents. On one occasion, Bellino brought up the initial assault in front of a superior officer, adding that he could even rape Gaines and no one would believe her. In early 1995, Ms. Gaines reported the conduct to the warden of the facility. No investigation was conducted until the middle of 1996, and no action was taken until March of 1997, when Bellino was suspended for 30 days.

Ms. Gaines filed a legal complaint against Bellino and the Hudson County Correctional Facility regarding the harassment in 1998. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants noting that the Hudson County Correctional facility maintained an anti-harassment policy and mechanisms for reporting harassment, proven by posters that had been exhibited in the facility as well as a section of the employee handbook that dictated the reporting process. Ms. Gaines appealed this decision, as she argued that the anti-harassment policies were ineffective and not implemented correctly. The question that the New Jersey Supreme Court was charged with answering was whether the Hudson County Correctional Facility’s anti-harassment policy in place were enough to protect an employer from being held accountable for sexual harassment?

In the midst of a national discussion regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, the laws prohibiting such egregious behavior as well as the methods of reporting and investigating related complaints have come under scrutiny. Many businesses across the country are reviewing their anti-harassment policies to become legally compliant and limit their liability when sexual harassment occurs at their workplace. In New Jersey, a claim of sexual harassment was first recognized in 1993, in the landmark New Jersey Supreme Court case Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us. Commonly referred to as Lehman by New Jersey employment lawyer and judges, this case set the standard for stating a cause of action for a claim of sexual harassment that created a hostile work environment.

Sexual harassment cases are typically divided into two categories: quid pro quo harassment or harassment that generates a hostile work environment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employer or supervisor attempts to make an employee submit to sexual demands as a condition of his or her employment. Sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment was ill defined prior to 1993, which made Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us the landmark case for sexual harassment cases in New Jersey.

In 1986, Ms. Theresa Lehmann’s employment with Toys ‘R’ Us was drastically altered upon the hiring of Don Baylous as the Director of Purchasing Administration. Under his supervision, Ms. Lehmann and her female coworkers began to experience pervasive sexual harassment that varied from sexualized comments about Ms. Lehmann’s breasts to an instance where Mr. Baylous physically pulled Ms. Lehmann’s shirt over her head to expose her breasts. Ms. Lehmann attempted to report the conduct to several managers, but very little was done to remedy the situation. Instead of addressing Mr. Baylous’s behavior, Ms. Lehmann was offered a transfer to a different department. She rejected this, and later resigned as a result of the harassing conduct and the retaliation she experienced from reporting it. In response to this inadequate managerial reaction, Ms. Lehmann submitted a formal legal complaint of sexual harassment that was initially heard by a trial court. The trial court dismissed all causes of action except battery. Ms. Lehmann appealed, and the appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of her claims of a hostile work environment brought on by sexual harassment, which they remanded for further fact finding. The case eventually found its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, where it developed into a monumental case in New Jersey court history.

Smith Eibeler, LLC, on behalf of our client, Katherine Brennan, has filed an Order to Show Cause For Temporary and Preliminary Restraints against the State of New Jersey (hereinafter, the “State”), from (1) enforcing the “strict confidentiality directive” found in N.J.A.C. 4A:7-3.1(j) against Ms. Brennan and any witnesses in the EEO/AA investigation being launched in response to her December 4, 2018, testimony before the Legislative Select Oversight Committee (“LSOC”)(hereinafter, the “EEO/AA Investigation”); (2) requiring Ms. Brennan to participate in any EEO/AA investigation until after this litigation and any criminal proceedings resulting from Ms. Brennan’s allegation of sexual assault are completed; (3) requiring Ms. Brennan and other witnesses in the EEO/AA Investigation to sign the “strict confidentiality directive” form; (4) requiring the EEO/AA to investigate the numerous violations of the State’s Policy Prohibiting Discrimination in the Workplace (“State Policy”) as set forth in the Complaint; and (5) declaring the “strict confidentiality directive”of N.J.A.C. 4A:7-3.1(j)  as null and void.

For the past year, the State has refused to conduct any investigation into any of Ms. Brennan’s reporting that she had been raped by Alvarez. Ms. Brennan exhausted all possible internal avenues of recourse and received no aid or support. Having no other option, Ms. Brennanwas compelled, as a last resort, to bring her allegations into public light. On October 14, 2018, her story was published in The Wall Street Journal. The article laid out in detail not only the rape Ms. Brennan had endured, but also her extensive efforts to prompt the State, through complaints to numerous high level State officials, to take action.

Ms. Brennan’s act of publicly telling her story accomplished what her numerous internal complaints and reports could not: it triggered investigations. As a result of the October 14 Wall Street Journal article, in or about October 2018, numerous investigations and/or reviews were launched in various departments of State and county government, including: (1) an ongoing review by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office of the criminal investigation conducted by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office (“HCPO”) into Ms. Brennan’s criminal complaint; (2) a review by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (“OPIA”) into Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez’s involvement in the investigation of Ms. Brennan’s allegations of sexual assault; (3) the ongoing investigation by the LSOC into how sexual misconduct complaints are handled by the state, as well as hiring practices; (4) Governor Murphy’s directive to the Division of EEO/AA to review policies and procedures for addressing allegations of sexual misconduct; and (5) an investigation on behalf of the Office of the Governor by former Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero into the hiring of Alvarez.

Most people know what sexual harassment is when they see it.  Whether an employer is responsible for sexual harassment that occurs at the workplace, however, is a more complicated fact specific inquiry.

It is first important to understand the definition of unlawful sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  The first form of sexual harassment is quid pro quo harassment.  A claim of quid pro sexual harassment occurs when an employer attempts to make an employee’s submission upon a sexual demand or sexual proposition a condition of employment.  The second form of sexual harassment is a claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment.  The elements of a hostile work environment sexual harassment is when the harassment (1) would not have occurred but for the employee’s sex, and the harassment was (2) severe and pervasive enough to make a (3) reasonable woman believe that (4) the conditions of the employment are altered and the working environment is hostile or abusive.

The first issue to determining whether an employer can be liable for sexual harassment that occurs at its workplace in a lawsuit is to identify the damages an employee is seeking in the case.  An employer will be liable for equitable damages and relief  if he or she seeks restoration of the terms, conditions and privileges of employment that he or she would have enjoyed but for the discrimination or sexual harassment.  Equitable relief is not money damages.  Instead, an employee who seeks equitable relief as a result of sexual harassment is looking for the court to require the employer to act or refrain from performing a particular act such as stopping the harassment, job reinstatement or other non-monetary relief.

The #MeToo movement has brought long overdue attention to the systemic societal problems concerning workplace sexual harassment throughout the United States and the State of New Jersey.  Most sexual harassment claims by a New Jersey employee are brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, a state statute.  While a New Jersey employee or resident may also bring a claim of sexual harassment under the federal statute, Title VII, most New Jersey employment lawyers counsel clients to proceed with their sexual harassment claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). This blog outlines the various types of workplace sexual harassment claims brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

In enacting New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law, the state legislature expressly declared “discrimination threatens not only the rights and proper privileges of the inhabitants of the State but menaces the institutions and foundation of a democratic State.”  N.J.S.A.10:5-3.  New Jersey courts interpreting the LAD have long and consistently recognized that employers are best situated to avoid or eliminate impermissible, pernicious employment practices relating to sexual harassment, to implement corrective measures to stop future sexual harassment, and to adopt and enforce employment policies that will serve to achieve the salutary purposes of the legislative mandate to end workplace discrimination.  New Jersey courts consistently remind us that the overarching goal of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is nothing less than the eradication of the cancer of discrimination.

There are different claims of sexual harassment that are actionable against an employer.  These include claims of hostile work environment, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and sexual harassment retaliation.

On October 4, 2018 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released the preliminary report of the sexual harassment data they collected for fiscal year 2018 (ending September 30, 2018).  This report shows that the #MeToo movement has had a widespread impact on reporting of sexual harassment and related workplace abuses.

The EEOC is the federal agency of the United States charged with administering and enforcing civil right laws against workplace discrimination including claims of sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination and retaliation.  Individuals who have suffered wrongful termination or discrimination at the workplace can file a charge with the EEOC by themselves or through the assistance of a private employment lawyer.  The EEOC was formed in 1965 and maintains its headquarters in Washington, DC with offices throughout the United States, including New Jersey.

Over the course of the past year, there has been a seismic shift in the way that sexual harassment has been viewed and addressed across all aspects of our society in large part due to the #MeToo movement.  Nowhere has this change been seen more drastically than in the incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace.  In the past year there has been a reckoning across the United States, with a clear message being sent to harassers that discriminatory and harassing behavior and conduct will no longer be tolerated at the workplace, our schools or in any other circumstances.

A federal Court of Appeals has affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a former Costco employee in connection with her claim of a hostile work environment based upon sexual harassment by a customer.  This case reaffirms that an employer can be held legally responsible for allowing a hostile work environment created by non-employees if the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to render the employee’s work environment hostile.

In the matter of EEOC v. Costco Wholesale Corp., the EEOC sued on behalf of a former Costco employee, Dawn Suppo.  Ms. Suppo was initially employed as a seasonal, part-time employee in 2009 and then became a regular, part-time employee in May, 2010.  Around the time she became a regular employee, a customer named Thad Thompson began approaching Ms. Suppo and asking her personal questions that her uncomfortable.  Initially, Ms. Suppo did not report the interactions to her supervisor or other management.  However, in or about July/August, 2010, the conduct did not stop and Ms. Suppo informed her supervisor of Mr. Thompson’s harassing conduct and the fact that she was scared of him.  Her supervisor instructed her to notify him if she sees Mr. Thompson again.

Soon thereafter, Ms. Suppo noticed Mr. Thompson in the store again watching her through the store aisles. Ms. Suppo reported to her supervisor that Mr. Thompson was back in the store stalking her and that she was scared of him.  As a result, Ms. Suppo’s supervisor and other management brought Mr. Thompson into the warehouse office and instructed him to leave Ms. Suppo alone.  Mr. Thompson responded with anger and loudly yelled that it is a “free country” and that he had “freedom of speech.”  Ms. Suppo was extremely scared at this point and decided to call the police and file a report.  Later that day, the one of the Costco Assistant Managers yelled at Ms. Suppo for calling the police and instructed her to be nice to Mr. Thompson.

The New Jersey Appellate Division has reversed a trial court’s determination that barred an employee from pursuing punitive damages in an arbitration proceeding.  While reversing the trial court’s determination concerning the issue of punitive damages, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit by holding that the plaintiff knowingly agreed to arbitrate her sexual harassment claims by waiving her right to a jury trial as set forth in the employment agreement. As a result, the employee will now pursue her sexual harassment claims in a private arbitration, but will be permitted to pursue her claims for punitive damages in the arbitration proceedings.

In the case of Milagros Roman v. Bergen Logistics, LLC,the employee, Ms. Roman, alleges that she experienced sexual harassment during her employment with Bergen Logistics.  Roman began her employment as a human resource generalist in 2015.  In April, 2017, Roman alleges that she was subjected to sexual harassment from her immediate supervisor and was terminated form her employment in retaliation for rebuffing the sexual advances.  Roman subsequently filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey for claims sexual harassment, retaliation, hostile work environment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The employer responded by filing a motion to dismiss and to compel Roman to bring her claims in a private arbitration proceeding based upon an employment agreement that she signed in which she waived her right to a jury trial.  The employment agreement also included a provision that barred Roman from pursuing punitive damages in any action against the employer.  Specifically, the agreement read the employee and the employer agreed not to “file or maintain any lawsuit, action or legal proceeding of any nature with respect to any dispute, controversy or claim within the scope of [the] Agreement,” and that “BY SIGNING [THE] AGREEMENT [PLAINTIFF] AND THE COMPANY ARE WAIVING ANY RIGHT, STATUTORY OR OTHERWISE TO A TRIAL BY JURY.” The trial court granted the employer’s motion and dismissed Roman’s claim and also found that the arbitration agreement’s clause that waived Roman’s right to pursue punitive damages as enforceable.