Articles Posted in Sexual Harassment

As with any legal issue, claims of sexual harassment involve many different legal factors that require consideration. Among these are a plaintiff’s potential damages, the statute of limitations related to the legal issue, and what exactly constitutes individual instances of harassment. These factors are made increasingly difficult to assess because of the nature of sexual harassment, especially when the harassment is pervasive as opposed to severe.

IMG_0999-300x169
Various court cases have provided clarity on many of the issues involved in sexual harassment cases. Karen Caggiano v. Armando Fontoura et al., helped to explain when a plaintiff’s right to file a complaint regarding sexual harassment expires, as well as what type of behavior may constitute continuous harassment.  In this case, Karen Caggiano endured years of pervasive harassment while employed as a Sheriff’s Officer in Essex County. Armando Fontoura, among others, constantly made derogatory comments relating to Ms. Caggiano’s sexual orientation and appearance. Her male coworkers regularly propositioned her for sex in extremely explicit and offensive language, and one individual went further, exposing himself to her on numerous occasions.

Fearing termination or other adverse employment action, Ms. Caggiano did not file a formal complaint regarding the harassment. However, in December 1996, Ms. Caggiano’s Captain overheard her discussing the harassment with a coworker. Her Captain ordered Ms. Caggiano to file a formal report of the conduct. Following this report, the incidents of harassment ceased, and Ms. Caggiano, along with several of the perpetrators, were transferred to different offices. A final incident of harassment occurred in February 1997, when Ms. Caggiano was assigned to attend same sexual harassment training in a group with two of her harassers. She was forced into this interaction despite the fact that there were approximately 400 employees attending the training in groups of 10. Nearly two years later, Ms. Caggiano decided to file a civil lawsuit alleging sexual harassment in the workplace.

A recent federal court decision serves as a reminder of the extremely high burden a litigant has in order to close court proceedings from the public.  In our judicial system, the doors of the courthouse open in assuring the public’s right to access to the judicial process. This federal court decision is being considered by many as a victory for the public’s freedom to access judicial information.

fullsizeoutput_3c-1-300x169
In the federal case, Silvka v. YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, a Colorado District Court struck down the defendant employer’s motion for a gag order and a motion to restrict. In the opinion, Chief Judge Brimmer’s provided a thorough explanation and insight into the public’s right to have access to judicial proceedings. The order also reflected the core principle’s espoused in Professor Eugene Volokh’s objection to the motions raised by the YMCA; that the First Amendment and the common law assert a public right to access court proceedings whether civil or criminal in nature. 

The motion for a gag order came as a result of Silvka’s complaint against the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region. The complaint alleged that a YMCA manager sexually harassed and forcibly groped the former employee and that the YMCA failed to conduct a proper investigation into her complaints.  The allegations of the sexual harassment lawsuit include a hostile work environment that involved employees binge drinking, and male upper level personnel abusing their power by coercing young female employees to have sex with them in order to advance in the organization. Silvka claimed to be the latest victim of this culture in her complaint. In response to the complaint and its publication by local news outlets in Colorado, the YMCA sought to impose a gag order fearing the complaint’s publication would prejudice a jury against them. 

In a demonstration of support for and solidarity with New Jersey employees that have experienced sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace, Governor Murphy signed Senate Bill 2986, nicknamed the “Panic Button Bill,” on June 11th, 2019. This bill was introduced to the New Jersey Senate in September of 2018 and, with Governor Murphy’s signature, will take effect in January of 2020. Governor Murphy claims that, with its passage, New Jersey becomes the first state nationwide to enact legislation of its kind.  The  passing of the legislation is another victory for employees, and particularly victims of sexual harassment in the #MeToo movement.

fullsizeoutput_3a-300x169
In an effort to recognize the prevalence of sexual misconduct in specific areas of employment, the New Jersey Senate has targeted the hospitality industry with regulations intended to protect hotel employees from facing such unlawful behavior. The bill states, “[d]ue to the unique nature of hotel work, hotel employees are particularly vulnerable when working alone in hotel guest rooms…this solitary work places them at risk of assault, including sexual assault, and sexual harassment.” This statement was proven true by a horrific case of sexual assault that occurred in 2018, when a 51-year-old house keeper at Billy’s Casino in Atlantic City was forced into a hotel room and sexually assaulted by a guest. This criminal act sparked a widespread demand for safer working conditions for hotel employees.

New Jersey employees are protected from sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the workplace by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD)The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes behavior such as inappropriate touching, unwelcome sexual advances, and retaliation for opposing sexual harassment conduct or participating in an investigation into such conduct. These are just some of the many different forms sexual harassment and assault can take. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination requires that employers take the utmost caution in assuring that their employees are not vulnerable to experiencing this type of unlawful behavior. This is the basis for the Panic Button Bill that Governor Murphy signed into law.

A group of female cocktail waitresses – referred to as the “Borgata Babes” – have finally received a win in their suit against the Borgata Hotel and Casino which has now been in the courts for more than a decade. The Atlantic County Superior Court, Appellate Division issued a ruling on May 20, 2019 finding that the Plaintiffs’ claims of gender-based discrimination, based on Borgata’s enforcement of personal appearance standards, should be allowed to proceed to trial.  In so ruling, the Appellate Division overturned the trial court and found that, while the standards themselves (including weight, appearance, and sexual appeal) do not violate anti-discrimination laws, Borgata’s enforcement of those standards could constitute gender based harassment under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

IMG_1214-300x300
Accordingly, the Appellate Division remanded the case back to the trial court to conduct further proceedings consistent with their decision. Unfortunately, this will only potentially benefit the five remaining Plaintiffs, out of the original twenty-one “Borgata Babes” who began the suit in 2008. At that time, the Plaintiffs’ alleged that they were humiliated and harassed by Borgata’s management in efforts to have Plaintiffs comply with and meet Borgata’s personal appearance standards.

The standards imposed on the “Borgata Babes” do not automatically violate anti-discrimination employment laws because of the niche role that these employees fill for the hotel-casino. The physical appearance standards are permissible because “Borgata Babes” are not merely servers or waitresses, they are also expected to work as models and hosts to entertain Borgata’s guests and give those guests a Las Vegas experience in their Atlantic City location.  Thus, “Borgata Babes” are displayed as physically fit and are attired in costumes meant to emphasize their physical attractiveness. Maintaining this image is mandatory for a “Borgata Bab” to keep their job.

New Jersey’s State Policy Prohibiting Discrimination in the Workplace is considered amongst many New Jersey employment lawyers as being one of the least protective of employee rights in the entire country.  Unfortunately, the newest revisions proposed by the Civil Service Commission do not provide any meaningful improvement for State employees governed under the State’s anti-harassment policy, and particularly with respect to how it conducts investigations of claims of sexual harassment.  In fact, when it comes to New Jersey’s controversial “strict confidentiality directive” policy, the proposed changes make the New Jersey’s anti-harassment policy even worse for victims of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Much has been written over the past week regarding the Civil Service Commission’s attempts to strengthen the strict confidentiality directive.  While the Civil Service Commission’s proposed revisions could worsen the penalties for breach, the current version of the strict confidentiality directive in effect continues to require incidents of sexual harassment from the public. What many of the news reports seem to have missed is the devastating impact of the current strict confidentiality policy has and continues to have on silencing victims of sexual harassment.

The current strict confidentiality directive in place expressly threatens state employees with discipline up to and including termination if the state employee exercises his or her constitutionally protected right to speak out about allegations of harassment within the state workplace. A state employee who makes a complaint of harassment or discrimination, or is requested to participate in a discrimination or harassment investigation, is required under current state regulations and practice to keep all aspects of the investigation confidential.  This means, for example, that if a state employee is the victim of sexual assault or harassment at her state job and she complains about it to the State’s EEO/AA office, she is forbidden under current regulations and practice to tell a lawyer, a co-worker or even her spouse anything about what happened.  The strict confidential directive remains in place and every state employee must abide by it or be subject to discipline.  N.J.A.C. 4A:7-3.1(j), states:

On March 18, 2019, Governor Murphy officially signed S-121 into law that makes any provision in an employment which waives any substantive or procedural right of an employee unenforceable as against New Jersey public policy.  Under the new law, New Jersey employers will no longer be able to conceal the underlying details of sexual harassment and other claims of discrimination through the use of non-disclosure or confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements.  The new Non-Disclosure law also protects employees from being retaliated against for not entering into any agreement or contract that requires them to waive their substantive or procedural rights.

The Non-Disclosure bill will apply to all workplace discrimination claims alleged or brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of protected traits such as gender, disability, race, national origin and other protected classes of people.  It also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who oppose discrimination or participate in harassment investigations.  Finally, it makes employers responsible for the harm caused to employees who are forced to work in a hostile work environment.

The Non-Disclosure bill is being touted a significant win for New Jersey employees’ rights and the #MeToo movement.  The law was sponsored by Senators Loretta Weinberg and Nia Gill an Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle, John F. McKeon and Jon M. Brammick.  The law will not be administered retroactively.  Instead, it will only apply to employment contracts that are entered into, renewed, modified or amended on or after the law’s March 18, 2019 effective date. This means any contract to arbitrate or settlement agreement requiring the underlying claims of lawsuit to be confidential signed before March 18, 2019 can still be enforced by an employer against an employee.

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.

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.