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Articles Tagged with hostile work environment

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.”

In recent years, allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct have abounded throughout the United States, and, particularly, in the Hollywood spotlight. In response to continuing and increasing numbers of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct in the entertainment industry, the Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality formed in 2017.  The organization’s mission is “leading the entertainment industry to a strong and equitable future by defining and implementing best practices that eliminate sexual harassment and bias for all workers, especially marginalized communities, and by actively promoting a culture of accountability, respect and equality.”

fullsizeoutput_44-300x169The Commission is founded and chaired by Anita Hill, a law professor who became an icon for the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements before they existed in 1991, when she accused nominated Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. While Hill did not publicly oppose his nomination, a confidential FBI interview with Hill was leaked to the press, prompting Senate hearings on Justice Thomas’ nomination to be reopened. Hill testified that Thomas, her supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), had sexually harassed her. In light of Thomas’ denial of her allegations, Hill agreed to take a polygraph test – the results were consistent with her testimony. In Thomas’ 2007 autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas refers to Hill as his “most traitorous adversary”. Hill’s work advocating for women in the workplace has continued, as she now leads the charge against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.

Hill stated, “The Me-Too movement sent shockwaves throughout the Hollywood community. We all know that there is work to be done to create safe and respectful workplaces in the industry. Our next step is to understand the state of the industry today, so that we can implement effective solutions.” Recently, the Commission joined with the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, a non-profit research organization focused on empowering organizations to build and sustain high-quality ethics and compliance programs and cultures of integrity, to develop a survey.

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.

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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.

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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. 

The Superior Court in New Jersey’s Appellate Division has rejected an employer’s attempt to overturn a Somerset County jury verdict finding it liable for creating a hostile work environment based upon an employee’s disability.  In the case Joseph Iko v. County of Middlesex, the Appellate Division took specific note of the overwhelming testimony of the employee’s co-workers induced at trial corroborating the employee’s claims that he was the subject to frequent verbal taunts while at work concerning his diabetes and other related medical problems.  Based upon the trial evidence, the court found that the jury rightfully applied the facts of the ongoing harassment in finding that the employee was subjected to an unlawful hostile work environment and affirmed the verdict.  In doing so, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the employee had to provide expert testimony regarding the exact qualities of his or her disability in order to proceed with his claim of a hostile work environment.

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In this case, the plaintiff Mr. Iko was employed by the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office from 1992 until his retirement in 2017. Mr. Iko was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes early in life and had to manage his symptoms throughout his entire adult life. At times the illness caused Mr. Iko to experience related medical issues that required him to take time off from work for surgical procedures. On one occasion, Mr. Iko had to undergo a pancreas transplant procedure, which was complicated by an aortic tear. Mr. Iko also experienced issues with his eyesight.

In addition to struggling with numerous medical issues, Mr. Iko faced severe and pervasive discrimination from his supervisors and coworkers on the basis of these disabilities. Several of Mr. Iko’s supervisors and coworkers referred to him as “Eye Lab”, “Half-Dead”, “Mr. Magoo”, “Stevie Wonder” and “Walking Dead”, among other such names. These nicknames were offensive to Mr. Iko, who repeatedly asked the harassers to stop. Mr. Iko’s supervisors also directed expletives and derogatory statements toward him related to his failing pancreas and eyesight. Mr. Iko attempted to lodge a formal complaint of harassment with the Sheriff, but his Captain told him that the Sheriff would not speak with him. Unable to address the ongoing discrimination and harassment internally, Mr. Iko felt he had no choice but to file a lawsuit against Middlesex County for disability discrimination.

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.

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