Articles Posted in Hostile Work Environment

More than a year before #MeToo, a Select Task Force was created by President Obama to examine the problem of sexual harassment at the workplace. The Select Task Force consisted of a select group of outside experts who analyzed the causes and effects of workplace harassment and made recommendations what should be done to prevent it. The Select Task Force’s Report of the Co-Chairs of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace was published in 2016 before the #MeToo movement.

The mission of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace was to determine the extent to which harassment impacts employees of various industries nationwide, as well as how best to mediate this behavior. The Task Force operated in conjunction with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and its eighteen (18) members include academics, lawyers, EEOC representatives, and other experts from all across the country.  The Select Task Force’s June 2016 Report outlined that analyzed the different factors that increase the risk of workplace harassment, how workplace harassment impacts employees and productivity, and how workplaces can both address and prevent the occurrence of harassment in their office. The eruption of movements have revealed the continuing epidemic of sexual harassment in the workplace which has caused an renewed interest in the report.

The report revealed that Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received approximately 30,000 charges of workplace harassment in 2015 alone. This statistic is even more shocking in light of the Select Task Force’s finding that only 25% of the victims report the harassment to their employers. In fact, reporting harassment to the employer is the least common response to harassment.  Victims of sexual harassment fear disbelief, inaction, or blatant retaliation by their superiors or the harasser.

The Third Circuit has reversed a trial court’s decision that dismissed a sexual harassment lawsuit because the plaintiff employee never complained directly to her employer. The decision is causing employment attorneys across the country to question the continued viability of the Faragher-Ellerth defense, which permits employers to avoid liability for sexual harassment where an employee fails to make a formal complaint about sexual harassment directly to the employer.

In the case of Sheri Minarsky v. Susquehanna County and Thomas Yadlosky, Jr., the employee began her employment as a part-time secretary with the Susquehanna County Department of Veterans Affairs from September, 2009. The employee claimed that she had been sexually harassed by her supervisor throughout her employment starting from the very beginning. The sexual harassment included her supervisor attempting to kiss her on the lips, massaging her shoulders while she was at her computer and approaching her from behind and pulling her against him. The employee also claimed that the supervisor would often question her whereabouts during her lunch hour and would also call her at home under the pretense of a work-related inquiry only to then ask personal questions unrelated to work.  The supervisor also sent sexually explicit messages through email to the employee.

While the employee never complained to her employer about her claims of sexual harassment in fear of retaliation, the employer was aware of the supervisor’s inappropriate behavior toward other women, which resulted in two verbal reprimands. Other employees also raised concerns that the supervisor would attempt to kiss employees under the mistletoe during Christmas time.

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.

The Sayreville Board of Education cancelled the varsity football team’s Thursday night game last week for what was described by Superintendent Richard Labbe as inappropriate conduct of a significant and serious nature within the football program. On Tuesday, the Board of Education cancelled the entire season in midst of the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office continued investigation into potential criminal conduct that occurred within the Sayreville football program.

ABC news reported that the allegations included younger kids of the Sayreville football team being routinely taunted, bullied and intimidated by the older players, often with “sexual overtones.” On Wednesday, nj.com published an exclusive article of specific allegations of sexual assault from an anonymous parent of a Sayreville football player. The article describes an almost daily locker room ritual of senior football players sexually assaulting freshman football players during this season as follows:

It came without warning.

ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Good Morning America and probably even your own Facebook page, have been flooded with varying opinions on the Miami bullying/harassment scandal. This blog entry is written by our New Jersey Employment Lawyers to analyze the facts, as reported, to determine whether a hostile work environment existed that would be in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

For those who have been living under a rock for the week, Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left his employment with the Miami Dolphins as a result of, at least in part, constant harassment and bullying directed at him from his teammates. It has been reported that Mr. Martin checked himself into a hospital as a result of suffering from emotional distress caused by the harassment. One teammate in particular, Richie Incognito, has been suspended indefinitely for his role in the harassment and bullying. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has appointed the prominent attorney, Ted Wells, to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of harassment and bullying within the Miami Dolphins.

Based upon the allegations that have reported, Mr. Wells’ investigation should reveal that Jonathan Martin was subjected to a hostile work environment that would be in violation of New Jersey law. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of protected characteristics, which include race, color, disability and sexual orientation. In other words, the discrimination must be based upon one of these protected characteristics in order for the harassment to be against the law. In the landmark case of Lehman v. Toy ‘R’ Us, Inc. 132 N.J. 587 (1993), 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. The Lehman decision held that New Jersey employers must maintain an effective policy against unlawful harassment/discrimination. An effective policy requires, inter alia, that employers investigate complaints of harassment promptly, thoroughly and completely. All complaints of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination must be fully investigated.

Rutgers University terminated its basketball coach in the wake of ESPN’s broadcast of a videotape showing him physically and verbally abusing players during practice. Public opinion seems nearly unanimous that Mike Rice’s conduct warranted his termination, but the question remains did he create an unlawful hostile work environment under New Jersey Law Against Discrimination?

New Jersey has some of the strictest anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws in the United States. Most notably, New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination outlaws unlawful employment discrimination against any person on the basis of protected characteristics, which includes sex, sexual orientation, national origin and others. In 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court in a case called L.W. v. Toms River Regional Board of Education, 189 N.J. 381 (2007) extended the workplace protections provided under Law Against Discrimination to situations where schools fail to stop severe and pervasive bullying based upon protected characteristics such as sex, sexual orientation and national origin. This means that if a school permits severe and pervasive harassment based upon a protected characteristic, the school can be found liable. Moreover, if the school knows or should know of the existence of unlawful discrimination or harassment, the law requires that the school investigate, remediate and prevent it from happening again.

The video shown by ESPN of several Rutgers basketball practices reveals numerous incidents of Mike Rice pushing, kicking and throwing basketball balls at players. It also depicts Mike Rice yelling gay slurs at players calling them “faggots” and other inappropriate comments. ESPN has also reported that Mike Rice regularly called one of his former players who transferred to Rhode Island, Gilvydas Biruta, names relating to his national origin of Lithuania and gay slurs. Former Rutgers assistant coach, Eric Murdock, who is anticipated to file a lawsuit against Rutgers for unlawful retaliation and wrongful termination, has alleged that Mike Rice would constantly scream at Mr. Biruta by using his national origin and gay slurs. For example, Mr. Murdock says that Mike Rice called Mr. Biruta a “soft-ass Lithuanian bitch,’ ‘soft-ass Lithuanian pussy’ and ‘Lithuanian faggot.'” Mr. Biruta told ESPN that he took offense to Rice’s name calling and insults stating, “If you’re going to criticize me as a basketball player, I’m OK with that,” he said, “but he would criticize me as a person.” Mr. Biruta also told ESPN that the main reason he transferred was because of Mike Rice’s treatment of him.

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently reversed a trial court’s granting of summary judgment dismissing an employee’s claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination when Defendants wrongly perceived the employee to be Jewish and directed daily Anti-Semitic comments at him. The court disagreed with the trial court’s determination that the employers’ perception that the employee was Jewish, when he in fact was not, did not provide grounds for a recognizable claim under of religious discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

In Cowher v. Carson & Roberts Inc., the claimant, Mr. Myron Cowher, was employed with Carson & Roberts Inc. as a truck driver from April 2006 through May 2008. From January 2007 through May 2008, Mr. Cowher was subjected to Anti-Semitic statements that were made directly to him by his two supervisors on a daily basis and often in the presence of other coworkers. Although the employer initially denied making such statements, video recordings revealed Mr. Cowher’s supervisors made various Anti-Semitic statements to Mr. Cowher. For example, Mr. Cowher’s supervisors called him a “Jew bag” over 20 times, called him a “Jew bastard” and told him “Only a Jew would argue over his hours.”

Mr. Cowher’s supervisors stated that the comments were made not because they perceived Mr. Cowher to be Jewish but instead because he and his wife took a cut of a Superbowl pool they ran and thus “fit the stereotype of Jews being avaricious.” The employer claimed that these comments were nothing but “light hearted banter between co-workers.” Mr. Cowher did not agree that these comments were “light hearted banter” and complained to the supervisors and to the Facility Manager. The Facility Manager told Mr. Cowher to laugh it off and then after making another complaint, Mr. Cowher was told to ignore it and it would go away.

The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey recently denied the parties cross-motions for summary judgment in the case Reginald L. Cannon v. Bradbury Burial Vault Co., Inc. In this case, the plaintiff, Mr. Cannon, alleges that he was subjected to race discrimination and a hostile work environment discrimination.

Mr. Cannon filed partial summary judgment for racial harassment in violation of Title VII, 42. U.S.C. 2000e, et. seq. as a result of being subjected to a racially hostile work environment at his employment with Bradbury Burial. The defendant, Bradbury Burial, opposed Mr. Cannon’s motion for partial summary judgment m and cross-moved for summary judgment claiming that Mr. Cannon failed to show that the racial discrimination complained of was pervasive and severe and that Bradbury Burial has no respondeat superior liability in the case.

Mr. Cannon’s allegations include numerous events of race discrimination taking place from 2004 through 2009. The incidents complained of primarily involved two co-workers of Mr. Cannon, who called Mr. Cannon racially derogatory names such as “black bastard,” “jigaboo,” “dumb black people” and “nigger”. Mr. Cannon does not allege that any managers or supervisors engaged in any racially harassing conduct. In 2006, Mr. Cannon and one of the co-workers had a physical altercation as a result of the co-worker stating to Mr. Cannon, “f*ck you ‘nigger’. It was also alleged that Mr. Cannon referred to the co-worker as a “spic”. This incident resulted in Mr. Cannon and the co-worker being issued warnings from their supervisor. In 2007, Mr. Cannon complained to his supervisors after learning that co-workers had referred to him as a “coon.” In the summer of 2007, Mr. Cannon got into another physical altercation with a co-worker who called Mr. Cannon a ‘nigger’ during the altercation. In 2009, Mr. Cannon complained about co-workers referring to hip hop music as “jungle music”.