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Articles Tagged with sexual harassment lawyer

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.

Most people are aware that the state and federal law can provide legal protection against sexual harassment and other discriminatory conduct to employees in the workplace. No job-related action, from recruitment and interviewing to compensation or discharge can be intentionally influenced or biased by an employee’s protected class, such as sex, gender, race, disability and others protected classes. But what if the individual is discriminated or harassed outside the employment?  Will the law provide any protection to an individual who is subjected to sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination in places outside the employment, such as government building, campaign organizations or within a police department?  The Appellate Division has issued a decision providing further guidance in situations in which a person is subjected to non-employment related discrimination in a case entitled Holmes v. Jersey City Police Department.

IMG_4199-300x169The case involves a transgender man, who was arrested for shoplifting and brought to the Jersey City Police Department for processing.  The individual, Mr. Holmes, presented his valid driver’s license indicating his gender as male at the time of the arrest. After fingerprinting revealed Holmes’ former name and gender, the officers used offensive and demeaning language to verbally harass Mr. Holmes for the duration of his time at the police station. The officers also moved Mr. Holmes from a male holding cell to a female holding cell despite Mr. Holmes’ identification as male.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment in a place of public accommodation. A place of public accommodation is any place that is open to the public, including schools, businesses, restaurants, government buildings and healthcare facilities. Public place accommodation violations include the use of offensive language, the display of demeaning images such as pornography or inappropriate drawings, as well as unwanted touching and other forms of physical harassment. This harassment can be unlawful regardless of whether it’s performed by an employee of the public place or another patron. Places of public accommodation have legal obligations to ensure that they have policies and procedures in place to prevent and stops the harassment once it knows about it or should have known about it, and it may not retaliate against the individual who was harassed or complained about harassment.

An employee is protected from retaliation from his or her employer when he or she engages in protected activity under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  But what constitutes protected activity?  Is any complaint covered?  Or does the employee complaint have to one that the complained of conduct violate the law?  The Supreme Court of New Jersey answered these questions concerning the standard in a 2013 decision in the case of Battaglia v. United Parcel Service Inc., in holding that an employee engages in protected activity when employee’s complaint is reasonable and made with a good faith belief that the complained of conduct violates the LAD.

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The Battaglia decision involved a case of sexual harassment retaliation.  Michael Battaglia had been employed with UPS since 1985, when he began as a driver and worked his way up the ranks. In 2001, Battaglia became the division manager of UPS’s South Division and he began supervising Wayne DeCraine. During this time, Battaglia became aware of DeCraine’s derogatory remarks about women, including sexually inappropriate comments about female employees at UPS. Battaglia took steps at that time, in accordance with UPS policy, to address DeCraine’s conduct and behavior. For unrelated reasons, thereafter, Battaglia was moved through several other departments at UPS and ultimately in 2004, returned to working with DeCraine – now with DeCraine supervising Battaglia as a division manager.

After some time, DeCraine began making what Plaintiff perceived to be a series of inappropriate sexual comments. While the comments were only made in the presence of male employees, the comments were about other female employees. Battaglia asserts that he spoke with DeCraine each time he made a comment and further met with their supervisor who had also heard these remarks.

The New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (DCR), in partnership with the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA), has released its report and recommendations to address the systemic problem of sexual harassment in New Jersey. The report entitled “Preventing and Eliminating Sexual Harassment” is the culmination of information, expertise and testimony provided by various experts, advocates, survivors and state governmental organizations concerning sexual harassment and abuse within both the workplace and in places of public accommodation.  Following the release of the report, Governor Murphy announced that he will support several of the legislative initiatives recommended by the DCR to strengthen New Jersey sexual harassment law.

IMG_2433-300x171Sexual harassment at the workplace and in places of public accommodation are prohibited under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.   Under New Jersey state law, employers and places of public accommodation have a legal obligation to have effective anti-harassment policies in place to prevent, stop and remediate workplace sexual harassment.  The factors used by courts to determine whether an employer’s anti-harassment policy is effective are: (1) whether there are formal policies prohibiting harassment in the workplace; (2) whether there are formal and informal complaint structures for employees to report violations of the policy; (3) whether the employer provides anti-harassment training to all employees, including mandatory training for supervisors and managers; (4) whether the employer has effective sensing or monitoring mechanisms to check the trustworthiness of the policies and complaint structures; and (5) whether the employer has demonstrated an unequivocal commitment from the highest levels of the employer that harassment will not be tolerated, and commitment to the policies by consistent practice.

Employers who fail to have effective anti-harassment policies in place can be held liable for the sexual harassment of employees by supervisors, co-employees, customers or other persons associated with the business.  Similarly, places of public accommodations must also take affirmative and proactive steps to assure invitees are not subjected to sexual harassment while at their place of public accommodation.  Places of public accommodation are businesses, agencies, organizations or other entities that are open to the public.  For example, schools, retail establishments, governmental buildings and governmental campaigns are viewed as places of public accommodation.  As with any employer, places of public accommodations have the same duties to have effective anti-harassment policies in place that prevent and keep persons safe from sexual harassment.

A jury has found in favor of a former PNC Bank employee and awarded her damages $2.4 million is damages after finding she was victim of sexual harassment.  Damara Scott, a former wealth manager who worked at the PNC Bank branch in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, claimed in her lawsuit that a regular customer grabbed her and grinded into her buttocks.

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The incident concerning the alleged sexual assault took place on October 20, 2013.   Ms. Scott alleges that she was stalked by a well-known and regular customer, named Patrick Pignatello, who followed her to her car when she was attempting to leave work for the day.  Ms. Scott alleged that Mr. Pignatello proceeded to utter vulgar, sexist and racist insults and touched and grouped her from her behind.  Ms. Scott testified that Mr. Pignatello  stated to her, “No, I’m not following you.  I offer full services and I’m willing to please.”  She alleges he then pumped and grinded into her buttocks.  Ms. Scott claimed that she was able to get away from Mr. Pignatello and went to the back of her car to drop her on the trunk so she could try to fight him off.

At this time, the branch manager had informed one of the tellers that Mr. Pignatello had followed Ms. Scott to her car and ran out through emergency door towards Ms. Scott. The branch manager screamed to Ms. Scott, “Are you ok?  What did Pat do? Do you want me to call the police?”  Ms. Scott claims that she was so shocked and embarrassed she could not respond appropriately and told the branch manager that she just wanted to leave and then left.

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.

A bipartisan team of New Jersey state legislators has announced its intention to introduce unprecedented legislation to address harassment and discrimination in New Jersey political campaigns and political parties. New Jersey is leading the push to create long-needed political campaign oversight and such legislation would be the first in the nation. The legislation comes at a time where more and more reports of rampant sexual harassment and sexual assault are brought to light in the media and in courts throughout the country.

IMG_0762-300x295The bill will create a new, independent process through which political and campaign staff and volunteers can immediately report allegations of harassment or discrimination without fear of retaliation. The proposed legislation will include clearly defined reporting processes with various reporting structures and mechanisms, codes of conduct, mandatory training, new guidelines and requirements for political campaigns and organizations, penalties for non-compliant entities and individuals, as well as oversight by at least one professional trained in supporting survivors of sexual assault.

While the new bill would create certain legal obligations specifically to campaigns concerning harassment, the dictates of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination will continue to apply to campaigns.  The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination to employees who work on the campaign and invitees of the campaign under the public accommodation provisions of the.  Invitees include persons such as volunteers, independent contractors and other persons who work on the campaign but may not be considered “employees” under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination employment sections.

The United States Equal Employment Commission (“EEOC”) has announced that it has settled a discrimination lawsuit in the amount of $321,000 against the United Airlines involving issues of cyber sexual harassment. The Flight Attendant alleged in her pleadings that United Airlines was negligent in allowing ongoing sexual harassment and cyber bullying of a pilot after she broke up with him in 2006 and therefore was responsible for creating at hostile work environment.

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In the filed Complaint, the Flight Attendant alleges that she was engaged in a consensual intimate relationship with a United Airlines pilot from 2002 through 2006.  During the consensual relationship, the Flight Attendant permitted the pilot to take photos and videos of her in provocative poses. The Flight Attendant alleges that the pilot also took at least one photograph and/or video with her knowledge or permission.  In or about 2006, one of the Flight Attendant’s co-workers informed her that he had seen nude photos of her on an internet website for “swingers.” The co-worker told the Flight Attendant that he was led to believe that he had been “chatting” with her on the internet and that he had believed that she had personally emailed him additional photos after they had been communicating directly. Because of the conversation with the co-worker, the Flight Attendant came to believe that the pilot was the person responsible for posting and circulating the nude images of her on the internet.  The Flight Attendant ended the relationship with the pilot after confronting the pilot about him posting the photos and videos without her permission or authorization.

The lawsuit alleged that the pilot continued to regularly post the sexually explicit photos and videos over the next decade, from 2006-2016.  The Flight Attendant came to learn that the images and videos were viewed by at least two of her United Airlines co-workers and tens of thousands of other United Airlines personnel and coworkers.  Despite her repeated complaints and obtaining an injunction, the pilot continued posting the videos and pictures on the internet.  The pilot repeatedly referred to the Flight Attendant by name and her occupation and home airport, which she alleged he did intentionally to affect the terms and conditions of her employment.

On December 11, 2019 at The Hollywood Reporter’s Annual Women in Entertainment breakfast gala, Gretchen Carlson announced the formation and launch of “Lift of our Voices,” an education and advocacy organization focused on putting an end to the practice of using Non-Disclosure Agreements (“NDAs”) to silence victims of sexual harassment and discrimination. In making the announcement, Carlson was joined on stage by Charlize Theron, an actress who is portraying Megyn Kelly in the upcoming film “Bombshell,” which details the Fox News sexual harassment scandal that saw then-CEO Roger Ailes forced to resign from the company. Carlson’s sexual harassment complaint against Ailes ultimately lead to his resignation, but her settlement with Fox News, and the NDA she was required to sign to enter into that settlement, have prevented her from speaking publicly about the case.

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An NDA is a contract that identifies certain information or topics that the parties agree they will not discuss with anyone following execution of the contract or agreement. NDAs typically are entered into in connection with an additional contract or agreement, such as an employment contract or a settlement or severance agreement. Often in the context of employment contracts, a prospective employee will agree not to discuss or disclose certain information regarding their employment to anyone outside the company, in exchange for being hired. In the context of settlement or severance agreements, a departing employee agrees not to discuss or disclose certain information regarding their employment or their reason for leaving the employment, in exchange for a settlement or severance payment.

In either situation, the NDA agreement can be used by the employer to facially “resolve” issues of harassment and discrimination without truly addressing systemic issues within their organization. In such a case, new prospective employees are unaware that they are entering a workplace where they may be unsafe. The public at large is likewise kept unaware, and individuals will then unwittingly support companies that they otherwise may choose not to support. Consumers are unable to apply commercial pressure to businesses that harbor and protect harassers, allowing those companies to circumvent a powerful societal check on business practices. Carlson and her organization are aiming to solve this problem, to give society at large access to this information, and more importantly, as Carlson stated, to give victims “back the voices they deserve.”

The #MeToo movement has shined much-needed light on the prevalence of sexual harassment within political campaign organizations.  Operating a political campaign, a transient organization — comprised of the candidate, and his or her workers, applicants, consultants and invitees – presents unique challenges. These challenges, however, do not shield campaigns the legal obligation to keep women safe from sexual harassment and misconduct within the campaign environment.  Women who are sexually harassed while working in campaigns are increasingly speaking, including filing lawsuits against the campaign entities when they fall victim to sexual harassment and assault.

fullsizeoutput_44-300x169Most recently, it was reported that a Chicago-based political staffer, Alaina Hampton, settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against a campaign, several political entities, and the campaign supervisor who sexually harassed her.  Ms. Hampton, a former political staffer and campaign manager, filed the lawsuit in March 2018.  She first began working on Chicago-based political campaigns in 2012 after graduating college with a degree in political science.  In or about July 2016, Ms. Hampton began working on three separate democratic campaigns for the Democratic Party of Illinois for which she was paid a salary.  Kevin Quinn, Ms. Hampton’s supervisor, was a well-known, high-ranking political operative for Speaker Madigan and the Madigan Defendants. Mr. Quinn directed Ms. Hampton’s work on any one of the three campaigns to which she was assigned.

Shortly after Ms. Hampton began working with Mr. Quinn, she alleges he began to subject her to severe and pervasive sexual harassment.  According to Ms. Hampton’s complaint, Mr. Quinn regularly pursued Ms. Hampton for a romantic and sexual relationship. Mr. Quinn’s purported sexually harassing behavior included repeated late-night text messages asking Ms. Hampton out, telling her she was “smoking hot,” and insisting she go out with him. Ms. Hampton asserts that she repeatedly told Mr. Quinn that she did not want to become involved with him and wanted to keep their relationship professional.  Ms. Hampton alleges that despite her repeated rejections, Mr. Quinn refused to take “no” for an answer.

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