SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Posted in Hostile Work Environment

SUPREME COURT UNANIMOUSLY RULES THAT SUPERVISOR’S USAGE OF RACIAL SLURS AGAINST EMPLOYEE ON ONLY TWO OCCASIONS ARE ENOUGH TO ESTABLISH SEVERITY IN A HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT CASE

In an unanimous opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that the use of offensive racist slurs on two occasions could meet the severe and pervasive standard required to establish a claim for hostile work environment under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The is being viewed by New Jersey employment lawyers as a victory to employee rights and their right to a work environment free of discrimination.  In denying summary judgment on behalf of the employer, the race workplace discrimination case will now proceed to trial with the ultimate outcome to be decided by a jury. 

IMG_1E2345D1B7BA-1-300x225In the case, Rios, Jr. v. Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc., the employee claims that on two separate occasions, his direct supervisor called him a “sp*c” and this conduct amounted to a hostile work environment. After he reported both instances to Human Resources (HR), the supervisor placed him on a performance improvement plan and he was eventually fired.  At the end of discovery, the employer filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case arguing that only two incidents were not pervasive or severe to constitute an actionable claim for hostile work environment.  The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the lawsuit. 

For many teens, a summer job is a rite of passage, a way to earn money and gain independence, and start the transition into adulthood. For many teen girls working for Ocean City Beach Patrol, their summer lifeguarding jobs allegedly also came with unwanted groping, sexual harassment and sexual assault at the hands of their male supervisors. In recent news, local media sources have reported that a viral Instagram account called @ocbp_predators has led the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate hundreds of allegations of sexual harassment and assault by members of the Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP). Reading through the accounts is disturbing. According to the anonymous posters, most of the misconduct was perpetrated by adult men in their thirties and forties against teenaged female lifeguards working for the OCBP.

IMG_6590-300x169Providing a link to RAINN, the national sexual assault hotline, the Instagram account contains allegations of male guards, some of whom are also teachers in Ocean County public schools, being involved in incidents where their teenaged direct reports were continuously sexualized at work and plied with drugs and alcohol at after-work parties, where often they would wake up unaware of what had happened to them the night before. Several of the Instagram posts referred to older male lifeguards repeatedly citing New Jersey’s age of consent, which is 16, to assert their entitlement to have sexual contact with the younger girls they supervised. However, New Jersey bars any adult in a position of authority having sexual contact with employees under the age of 18.

It seems clear that if the allegations against the male lifeguard supervisors are true, they could be facing criminal penalties, but that is not always the case. Sexual assault against teenagers is a significant societal problem that often goes unaddressed. According to TeenHelp.com, teenagers account for at least half of all reported instances of sexual abuse, with teens of working age (16-19) being over three times as likely as the general public to be victims. Additionally, once victimized, the same teen is more likely to experience further abuse, and when the victim is a high school aged female, she is more likely than others to develop eating disorders, risky sexual behaviors, unwanted pregnancies, and suicidal ideation. Despite these staggering statistics, less than one-third of sexual assaults against teens are reported. The low reporting rate may be due in part to the fact that only about half of abusers are eventually arrested and a measly 16% are imprisoned. Of those who do go to jail for their crimes, the average sentence is about 4 months. Approximately 80% of jailed rapists report that their victims were under the age of 18. What laws, other than the criminal code, are there to protect these girls?

In January, during a television news interview, then President Donald Trump said about the novel coronavirus, “It’s one person coming in from China.” That one remark, seemingly a purely geographical description of the virus’ origin, became the starting point from which our former President attempted to shift blame from his doorstep to China’s for mounting deaths, unemployment, shuttered businesses, food and housing insecurity and widespread panic. By convincing his supporters that our country’s pandemic response was actually Americans being forced to fight a war against an invisible Chinese invader, Trump caused a drastic shift in our political climate that resulted in Asian Americans becoming targets of hate crimes, harassment and discrimination.

IMG_1E2345D1B7BA-1-300x225Can one person’s words, even if made publicly, really cause an entire race of people to suffer abuse and harassment? In short, yes; harassment or much worse. All we need to do to know that is to revisit the history of Nazi Germany, the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the American response to the Japanese after World War II. Xenophobic rhetoric, especially when propagated by a political leader, can absolutely lead to hate and discrimination and in the worst cases, extreme violence. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) tracked the number of bias complaints filed by Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, South Asian and Sikh workers in the U.S. and saw a 250% increase in the wake of 9/11. This drastic response occurred despite then President George W. Bush urging people not to discriminate.

In contrast, consider Trump’s narrative around the coronavirus. In April 2020, at a press briefing, Trump linked the unfolding pandemic to his conservative immigration policy: “Therefore, in order to protect American workers, I will be issuing a temporary suspension of immigration into the United States”. In May 2020, as the pandemic worsened on U.S. soil and Trump was taken to task for his perceived nonchalance around the virus, he responded, “Intelligence has just reported to me that I was correct, and that they did NOT bring up the Corona Virus subject matter until late into January, just prior to my banning China from the U.S.” In a tweet that same month, “Great reviews on our handling of Covid 19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus.” In July 2020, as the country approached 4 million cases of Covid-19, unemployment was rising, and growing numbers of citizens were becoming food or housing insecure, Trump tweeted, “We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!”Later that month, “You will never hear this on the Fake News concerning the China Virus, but by comparison to most other countries, who are suffering greatly, we are doing very well – and we have done things that few other countries could have done!” Remembering Herman Cain during a White House briefing after his death from Covid-19 last year, Trump said “he passed away from the thing called the China virus.” In August 2020, as the U.S. reached 6 million cases of Covid-19, Trump referred to the virus publicly as “the China virus” at least another 4 times, including during a virtual rally in Nevada when he said, “I mobilized the largest response since World War II to fight the China virus and we are really doing well. Our numbers are excellent, really really good, and hopefully, we’re rounding the final turn on that disaster given to us by China.” As U.S. deaths passed 200,000 in September 2020, Trump linked the coronavirus to China a dozen more times, often by using wartime analogies and imagery to emphasize his patriotism and to cast the virus as a hostile foreigner. During rallies in North Carolina, Nevada, Michigan and Florida, he referred to it as “the invisible enemy” and made repeated references to defeating “the China virus.” During a rally in North Carolina, he stated “We will end the pandemic from China. We will end our — our plague from China.”

“There’s a long and ugly history at Edna Mahan,” said New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. He was referencing not only the January 11, 2021 attack in which prison guards wearing riot gear beat, pepper sprayed and sexually assaulted the female inmates housed at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey. The long history of sexual abuse at Edna Mahan dates back at least to the early 1990s, and a searing report issued in the Spring of 2020 by the Department of Justice has exposed the prison as a hostile and abusive environment, not because of the inmates’ crimes, but because of the guards whose duty it has been to house, feed and protect these women.

C3AC1131-D54A-483E-826B-FE4BDF8B551D-300x166Around midnight on January 11, 2021, over two dozen officers forcibly removed the women inmates from their cells, resulting in broken bones, concussions, and in at least one instance, forcible sexual penetration. Although we typically protect the privacy of harassment and assault victims, some of the women who were attacked have chosen to come forward publicly. Inmate Ajila Nelson said she was beaten and sexually assaulted in her cell during the extraction. Desiree Dasilva was punched repeatedly in the head resulting in a broken eye socket and said an officer left a boot print on her arm. Emmalee Dent was punched in the head approximately twenty-eight times by one of the guards as she pressed herself against a wall and attempted to protect herself from the blows. Inmate Faith Haines told a local media outlet that the attack started when another prisoner became upset that her cell had been searched while she was outdoors for recreation. Reportedly, Sean St. Paul, an administrator who was suspended in the wake of the attack threatened the inmates with similar discipline “every night” that they “acted up”.

A few weeks later, three prison guards – Sergeant Amir Bethea, Sergeant Anthony Valvano and Officer Luis Garcia – were accused of filing false reports in an effort to cover up the attack and were charged with official misconduct, tampering with public records, and Garcia was charged with aggravated assault for the beating of Emmalee Dent.

Disability discrimination remains a persistent problem in the workplace. But it does not happen only at work. Last month, a Norwood, New Jersey teenager was cut from her school’s volleyball team because she has epilepsy. After her father reported what he believed to be discriminatory conduct and demanded that the school adhere to her rights under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, she was permitted back on the team. Once she was playing again, however, she was subjected to bullying and harassment from her teammates that lasted the entire school year according to the Complaint filed by her father on October 1, 2020.

fullsizeoutput_3f-300x169Norwood is a small K-8 district where the minor plaintiff (referred to by her initials, EP) received special education and related services due to several disabilities including social anxiety and epilepsy. In addition to being a special education student at Norwood public school, EP was also a member of the volleyball team. Along with her teammates, she tried out for and made the team in her 6th and 7th grade years. When she tried out in her 8thgrade year, she was shocked when she found out that she was the only 8thgrade student who did not make it. When her father addressed his daughter’s removal from the volleyball team with school administrators, EP was allowed back on the team, but was subject to bullying by her teammates for the rest of the school year.

The family filed a Complaint in the New Jersey Superior Court for Bergen County against the Norwood Board of Education and Vito DeLaura, the principal of Norwood public school, alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. In the lawsuit, the family alleges that Mr. DeLaura, who they claim has a history of singling out and humiliating EP due to her disabilities, instructed the volleyball coach not to let EP play. Specifically, the lawsuit claims the volleyball coach cut EP from the team because her epilepsy required the school to hire a nurse who would be present at all games and practices, creating a significant financial burden on the school district. The family claims that the subsequent bullying was due to EP’s disabilities and was not addressed properly by the school.

While there are federal and state laws that protect employees from racial discrimination in the workplace throughout the country, these laws are not always uniform in terms of the severity or pervasive enough of the complained of conduct that constitute an actionable hostile work environment.  Generally speaking, when the racially discriminatory conduct is so severe or pervasive as to change the nature of the job, a worker has grounds to bring a lawsuit for hostile work environment. But what type of conduct meets the standard for a successful claim? More specifically, can a single instance of race-based discrimination create a hostile work environment? The answer may depend on where the suit is filed. For example, in New Jersey, our courts have held that a single racial epithet can constitute a hostile work environment, while other courts outside New Jersey have adopted a strict rule that a single racial epithet, no matter how offensive, can never be enough to constitute a hostile work environment.

IMG_1E2345D1B7BA-1-300x225Earlier this month, a judge in the federal district court for the Northern District of Alabama granted a defendant employer summary judgment against three plaintiff employees’ claims of racial discrimination and hostile work environment. In Bone v. Alliance Investment Co., LLC, Case No. 5:18-cv-01706-LCB (N.D. Ala. Oct. 8, 2020), three African American carpenters sued their employer, claiming that supervisors frequently referred to them as the n-word behind their backs and routinely assigned them more physically demanding work than their white counterparts. One plaintiff was called the n-word directly to his face and others overheard it being used. The company argued that the employees had failed to present evidence that the harassing conduct was severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms or conditions of their employment. Agreeing, the court dismissed the hostile work environment claim with prejudice.Specifically, the court found that in order to establish a hostile work environment in the Eleventh Circuit, the plaintiffs had to show that “the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” The test for severe and pervasive conduct is both subjective and objective, meaning that the environment became what a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive as well as one that the victim subjectively perceived to be abusive. The court found that although the behavior was subjectively abusive to plaintiffs, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would not find the workplace to be hostile. Recognizing the severity of the n-word, the court still held that because the plaintiffs’ job performance was not impacted by it, their claim for hostile work environment failed as a matter of law.

The Bone case is reminiscent of a 2019 case decided by recently appointed Supreme Court Justice, Amy Coney Barrett, when she sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In Smith v. Ill. Dept. of Transportation, 936 F.3d 554 (7thCir. 2019), an employee for the Illinois Department of Transportation was fired after a probationary period of employment during which he allegedly performed quite poorly. The employee sued the Department, arguing that it had subjected him to a hostile work environment and fired him in retaliation for his complaints about racial discrimination. The Circuit Court affirmed the dismissal of his claims for failing to establish a hostile work environment as a matter of law. In his lawsuit, the employee claimed he was treated differently from other employees due to his race and his supervisor called him the n-word during a confrontation. The employee was fired two weeks after the confrontation. Addressing the hostile work environment claim, the Circuit Court found that the majority of the harassment he cited was unconnected to his race and arose from generally unpleasant and profane language that was used routinely toward all employees. The one incident, however, that plainly constituted race-based harassment was when one of his supervisors called him a “stupid ass [n-word]” after finding out that he had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity office. The Court noted that “while there is no ‘magic number of slurs’ that indicates a hostile work environment, an ‘unambiguously racial epithet falls on the more severe end of the spectrum.’” Even still, a plaintiff cannot win a hostile work environment claim simply by proving that the word was said unless he can also show that it altered the conditions of his employment. Unlike in Bone, the Seventh Circuit Court found that the plaintiff failed to prove even his own subjective belief that being called the n-word created a hostile work environment. The court found that because his entire employment had been rocky, and by the time he was called the n-word his termination proceedings were already under way, there was no proof that the racial slur changed the always unpleasant work environment. Because he could not show that the distress he suffered from being called the n-word was distinct from the distress he suffered routinely at work, the plaintiff’s claim for hostile work environment was dismissed.

Two recent New Jersey lawsuit settlements highlight the prevalent issues of sexual harassment and sex discrimination that woman police officers continue to face in the workplace.  These cases illustrate how important it is for male-dominated work environments such as police departments to take preventative measures against sexual harassment and to take immediate remedial measures when it occurs.

IMG_3469-300x169Last month, it was reported that Franklin Township settled a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit with a female police lieutenant, Kristen Durham for the sum of $300,000. The settlement also allows Durham to remain on paid personal administrative leave until she achieves 25 years of service credit in the New Jersey Division of Pensions, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.

Durham, of Robbinsville, started working for the Franklin Township Police Department in 1996, where women make up only about ten percent of the department. Durham is the first and only female lieutenant. In her complaint, she alleged that her male supervisors publicly engaged in extramarital affairs and openly discussed their sexual activities. One male supervisor even ordered Durham to watch a subordinate with whom he was having an affair when he was not at work and to report back to him if any male officers spoke to her. Durham’s responsibilities included recruiting for the department and in that capacity, she personally recruited nine African American officers, and often advocated for female, Black and Hispanic officers to receive equal treatment to their white male counterparts in the department.

In recent celebrity employment law news, former reality television star, Angelina Larangeira (nee Pivarnick) settled a federal employment discrimination lawsuit against the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) for $350,000. Pivarnick has been working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in Staten Island since 2016, where she alleges she was the victim of sexual harassment and assault. Specifically, Pivarnick sued the FDNY as well as one of her supervisors, Lieutenant Jonathan Schechter, alleging a hostile work environment and severe sexual misconduct that took place between 2017 and 2018.

IMG_2433-300x171In the Complaint, Pivarnick alleges that she was subjected to “repeated and unwelcome sexual advances, degrading comments about her body, vulgar sexual comments, inappropriate questions about her private relationships and, in one instance, the groping of an intimate part of her body without her consent”. This sexual misconduct allegedly took place in person at her work and via text message, when her supervisor sent her a message stating, “Your ass looked amazing and I wish I wasn’t working or in uniform because I definitely would’ve kissed those amazing lips”. As in many sexual harassment cases, Pivarnick was also assaulted. In her pleadings, she alleged that in May 2018, her supervisor groped her buttock and “made contact with her vaginal area.”

At the time her suit was filed, Pivarnick released a statement: “I suffered severe sexual harassment while working for EMS and was retaliated against by my management when I complained internally. It should go without saying that what I experienced has nothing to do with television or entertainment. Like all women, I am entitled to be treated with dignity and respect at work, and I should not have to accept unwanted sexual advances, crude comments about my body, or physical assault.” In response to news of her settlement breaking, Pivarnick stated, “I said when the case was filed that it had nothing to do with television or entertainment and that remains true. Sexual harassment is serious and has devastating consequences for so many women. It has for #MeToo. Although I experienced horrendous treatment at EMS, I’m pleased with the resolution of my case and I look forward to using my voice to speak about the need to protect all women from sexual harassment.”

This month the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA) released its report, “It’s Everywhere, It’s Everything: The Report of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 2020 Survey on Misogyny & Sexual Misconduct in New Jersey Politics.” The report publishes survey results received from employees within New Jersey’s political sphere regarding their experiences of sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. It also makes recommendations for improving workplace culture around sexual harassment and misconduct, including increased education and training, the development of transparent, predictable reporting processes, and the creation of a culture of accountability in NJ politics.

IMG_4994-300x168Survey respondents held a variety of positions within state politics, including advocates and activists, state government employees, campaign staffers, lobbyists, partisan political operatives, staffers to elected officials, those holding elected office themselves, legislature employees, and county and municipal government employees. The largest reporting groups were advocates and activists (16%), state government employees (13%), campaign staffers (13%) and partisan political operatives (13%). The vast majority of respondents were white (85%), non-immigrant (94%), heterosexual (81%), cisgender (79%), highly-educated (89%) women (78%). As the report acknowledges, this means that this particular study provides a window into the sexual harassment and misconduct experienced and witnessed by a highly privileged group, and indicates that despite holding such privilege, these respondents were often without the proper resources to prevent, report, or obtain justice in the face of harassment and misconduct in the workplace. The report stressed the importance of interpreting the results as framed and informed by one specific type of woman.

It comes as no surprise that most survey participants (57%) reported having either experienced and/or witnessed sexual harassment and misconduct during their work in NJ politics, and that women are far more often the targets of this misconduct and more likely to report it than men. By occupation, 75% of county government employees reported experiencing harassment, and 77% of campaign staffers and 76% of lobbyists reported witnessing it. When defining the specific types of harassment encountered, verbal remarks and misogynistic comments were the most frequently reported and combined make up 45% of the total. Three percent of respondents reported having been raped. State government employees reported that misogyny is “very prevalent” in their workplaces.

A New York State trial court recently ruled that the arbitration clause in an employment contract requiring an employee to submit to binding arbitration for claims against her employer, including sexual harassment claims, was unenforceable following amendments to New York State’s Human Rights Law in 2018. The decision creates a split in authority between New York State and federal courts, following a 2019 decision in the Southern District of New York upholding the enforceability of arbitration agreements in employment contracts. That court found that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts the New York statutory prohibition. These contrasting decisions may create uncertainty around the viability of employee/employer arbitration agreements in New York as they relate to harassment and discrimination claims.

IMG_2433-300x171This confusion exists in New Jersey as well. On March 18, 2019, Governor Murphy signed legislation that, among other things, prohibits mandatory arbitration of discrimination, retaliation or harassment claims as against public policy. While other jurisdictions, including New York, have enacted similar legislation pertaining to sexual harassment claims, the New Jersey law covers all claims arising under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The New Jersey law also states that confidential settlement agreements “shall be deemed against public policy and unenforceable”. It is important to note that the prohibition of arbitration does not apply to collective bargaining agreements. It remains unclear whether New Jersey courts will find that this state law is preempted by the FAA, but nonetheless, employers run the risk of violating the new law if arbitration provisions are included in employment contracts going forward. The new law is not retroactive. It applies “to all contracts and agreements entered into, renewed, modified or amended on or after” March 18, 2019.

Since the signing of New Jersey’s law prohibiting the inclusion of arbitration agreements in employment contracts, New Jersey courts, both state and federal, have upheld the validity of arbitration clauses that were signed before enactment of the law.

Contact Information