New Jersey Sexual Harassment Law: Revisiting Gaines v. Bellino

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?

To address this controversy, the Supreme Court held that the mere presence of anti-harassment policies is not sufficient to clear an employer of liability for sexual harassment damages. Instead, these policies and the reporting mechanisms they outline must be demonstrably effective; i.e. they must provide “meaningful assistance” to victims of sexual harassment. The New Jersey Supreme Court outlined five factors that courts can use to determine the effectiveness of an employer’s anti-harassment policy, which are as follows:

(1) formal policies prohibiting harassment in the workplace;

(2) both informal and formal complaint structures for employees’ use;

(3) anti-harassment training, which must be mandatory for supervisors and managers and available to all employees;

(4) the existence of monitoring mechanisms to check the effectiveness of the policies and complaint structures; and

(5) an unequivocal commitment from the highest levels of the employer that harassment would not be tolerated, and demonstration of that policy commitment by consistent practice.

In Ms. Gaines’ case, the inadequate response of those to whom she had reported the conduct demonstrated that the facility maintained an atmosphere that condoned harassing behavior and dismissed allegations of wrongdoing. This type of atmosphere would be indicative of an ineffective anti-harassment policy. For this reason, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that Ms. Gaines’ sexual harassment lawsuit should not have been granted summary dismissal. Instead, Ms. Gaines was entitled to a jury’s evaluation of the facts.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Gaines decision is particularly relevant for employers who attempt to use the fact that they maintain anti-harassment policies as a defense against sexual harassment complaints. This case determined that it is not enough for an employer to have a paper anti-harassment policies to be in place; instead, they must be sufficiently effective and provide substantive assistance to employees from falling victim of sexual harassment.

While Gaines v. Bellino clarified the standards for assessing whether an employer can be held legally responsible for workplace sexual harassment, this determination will remain a fact sensitive inquiry.  If you or a family member are the victim of sexual harassment, it is imperative that you seek advice and counsel from an experienced New Jersey sexual harassment lawyer who can evaluate the specific facts and circumstances of the workplace situation.