#MeToo Movement Insufficient to Revive Dismissed Case

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied an employee’s request to reopen her case based on alleged changed attitudes “post-Weinstein.”  The Court also denied the employer’s request for sanctions but cautioned the employee’s attorney that the employee’s motion “bordered on frivolous.” 

Background Facts

Taylor Ballard worked as a retail sales consultant at a New Jersey store operated by AT&T Mobility Services LLC (AT&T).  In her lawsuit against AT&T, Ballard contended that one of her coworkers made lewd comments to her about her physical appearance and took unsolicited photographs of her on his Google Glasses.  Ballard reported the incident to her immediate supervisor.  Ballard’s supervisor spoke to the coworker (who denied the allegations) and ultimately warned him about inappropriate conduct.  Ballard claimed during litigation that coworkers would regularly discuss sexual activities, but she made no other reports to management.

After someone flagged the incident to AT&T’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) hotline, AT&T’s EEO office conducted a full investigation, interviewing several witnesses.  The EEO office could not corroborate the story but ordered all of the employees and managers at the store to participate in training sessions about appropriate workplace conduct.

After the alleged incident, Ballard only attended work 3 out of her 16 scheduled shifts.  During her penultimate shift, Ballard arrived out of uniform and told her supervisor she was turning in her company phone.  After a final warning, Ballard’s employment was terminated.

Court Awards Summary Judgment to AT&T

Ballard asserted hostile work environment, constructive discharge and retaliation claims under federal and state law.  On August 25, 2017, the District Court granted AT&T’s motion for summary judgment on all claims and dismissed her complaint.

Even viewing all of the facts favorably to Ballard, the Court found that Ballard had not demonstrated the existence of a “hostile work environment” under federal and state law.  The single incident that Ballard reported, the Court held, was not “severe” or “pervasive” and so it did not rise to the level required to show a hostile work environment claim.  Ballard’s generalized allegations of other sexual comments were not specific enough and did not rescue her claim.

The Court dismissed Ballard’s constructive discharge claim both because she could not show that she voluntarily resigned – she was fired – and because a constructive discharge claim requires a showing of even more severe or pervasive conduct than a hostile work environment claim.  Since Ballard’s hostile work environment claim was legally insufficient, so was her constructive discharge claim.

On her retaliation claim, Ballard contended that AT&T fired her because she reported her coworker’s conduct.  The Court found the evidence demonstrated Ballard was fired because of her persistent failure to attend work, not because of her report of the conduct, precluding a retaliation claim.

Court Denies Request To Reopen Case Due to “Post-Weinstein” Change in Attitudes

Ballard did not appeal the summary judgment decision to the Court of Appeals.  Instead, four months later, in December 2017, Ballard filed a motion to “set aside” the Court’s summary judgment in AT&T’s favor and revive her case.

Ballard’s argued that the highly publicized allegations against Harvey Weinstein and resulting #Metoo movement have changed “common sense” and “industry standards.”  Based on these new standards, Ballard urged the Court to revisit its decision as to what constitutes a hostile work environment.

Rejecting Ballard’s argument, the Court noted that it was not based on new evidence and that all of the current events Ballard discussed bore no relation to AT&T or to her specifically.  The Court refused to draw any inferences or conclusions from other allegations of sexual harassment against different companies, all unaffiliated with AT&T, about Ballard’s case.

Ballard also cited to a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued less than two weeks after the summary judgment decision.  But that decision, the Court concluded, did not change the law and, even if it had changed the law, Ballard’s time to appeal had not run when the Third Circuit issued the decision, so she should have filed a motion for reconsideration with the district court at that time.

“Close Call” For Sanctions

In response to Ballard’s motion, AT&T requested that the Court sanction Ballard because the motion lacked any basis in current law and was frivolous.  The Court denied this request but noted that it was not an “easy decision” since the motion “bordered on frivolous, considering the relevant case law and the circumstances of the litigation.”  That being said, the Court did not want to deter attorneys from making creative or novel arguments.  Thus, the Court declined to sanction Ballard or her attorney but cautioned “counsel to carefully consider future filings.”

Bottom Line

Employers should take comfort that the court will not be influenced by the ebb and flow of public opinion. The #Metoo movement has empowered individuals to come forward to report abuses and misconduct that legitimately should be remedied.  But Courts hearing sexual harassment claims will only look to evidence that directly relates to the employee/employer in that specific case, not general anecdotes about the state of corporations overall and the vicissitudes of public opinion.

For more information on hostile work environment claims and motions for relief from judgment, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com or Lawrence Bluestone, Esq., Counsel, at lbluestone@nullgenovaburns.com.

UPDATED: New Laws in New York State & City on Workplace Sexual Harassment

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed several new laws imposing requirements on employers in New York State regarding sexual harassment.  New York City employers will be subject to additional requirements, as Mayor Bill de Blasio just signed a package of bills, collectively called the “Stop Sexual Harassment in New York City Act.”.  New York State and City employers should prepare for these changes and their varying effective dates summarized below.

New York State

  • Employers Cannot Mandate Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Claims – Employers can no longer mandate that employees arbitrate sexual harassment claims unless that prohibition is inconsistent with (a) federal law or (b) a collective bargaining agreement. This provision is sure to be challenged based on preemption under the Federal Arbitration Act, however, unless or until a court rules otherwise, the law will be effective as of July 11, 2018.
  • Most Nondisclosure Agreements are Banned from Sexual Harassment Settlements Unless Sufficient Consent and Notice – Employers who settle sexual harassment claims can no longer include provisions in their settlement agreements preventing the disclosure of facts underlying the claims, unless the complaining party consents to it. He/she must be given 21 days to consider the nondisclosure language and 7 days thereafter to revoke it.  He/she cannot waive this right.  This law takes effect on July 11, 2018.
  • Employers Must Adopt a Policy and Provide Annual Training on Sexual Harassment – The state will establish a model sexual harassment policy and training program that will address specific topics, including information related to what laws workplace sexual harassment violates, remedies available to victims, complaint and investigation procedures, and the additional obligations imposed on supervisory employees to address sexual harassment. Effective October 9, 2018, employers will be required to adopt a policy that meets or exceeds the model policy’s standards, distribute that policy in writing to all of its employees, and implement an annual training program that meets or exceeds the model training program’s standards.  Effective January 1, 2019, most companies bidding for a state contract will be required to accompany their bids with a certification stating that they have a written policy and training program that meets or exceeds the models.
  • Employers Are Now Liable to Non-Employees for Sexual Harassment – Employers will be held liable for sexual harassment committed against contractors, subcontractors, vendors, and others providing services under a contract, where it can be shown that the employer (a) knew or should have known that such non-employee was being harassed but did nothing about it, and (b) has sufficient control and “legal responsibility” with respect to the conduct of the harasser. This law takes effect immediately.
  • Government Employees Must Refund any Taxpayer-Funded Payouts for Sexual Harassment Awards – Effective immediately, employees of the state, political subdivisions or other public entities (including elected officials), who have been found personally liable for sexual harassment in the workplace, must refund to the state/other public entity any payments it made to the plaintiff on that employee’s behalf, within 90 days.

New York City

  • NYC’s Anti-Harassment Statute Will Apply to All Employers – The NYC Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), which governs harassment in the workplace, previously applied to employers with 4 or more employees. Effective immediately, the NYCHRL applies to all employers, regardless of size, with respect to liability for sexual harassment.
  • Sexual Harassment Claims Will be Subject to a Three-Year Statute of Limitations – In its prior form, the NYCHRL imposed a one-year statute of limitations on claims of discrimination and harassment. Effective immediately, that limitations period is extended to three years for claims of gender-based harassment.
  • NYC Employers Must Provide Annual Sexual Harassment Training – The City will establish a model sexual harassment training program designed to explain what sexual harassment is and what laws it violates, and inform employees about the complaint processes and legal remedies available to them, that retaliation is prohibited, and the heightened duties imposed on supervisory employees to address sexual harassment. Effective April 1, 2019, private City employers with 15 or more employees will be required to provide all employees annual sexual harassment training that meets or exceeds the model program’s standards.  New employees must receive the training within 90 days of hire.  The program must be interactive, but it need not be live.  Employers will be required to maintain records of trainings, including acknowledgement forms.
  • NYC Employers Must Hang a Poster & Distribute a Hand-Out Regarding Sexual Harassment – The City will create a poster and hand-out setting forth employees’ rights regarding workplace sexual harassment. Effective September 6, 2018, all employers will be required to mount the poster in a conspicuous place and distribute the handout to all employees.  The poster must be at least 8.5 by 14 inches in size, using at least 12-point font, and posted in both English and Spanish.

Employer To-Do List

The following is a non-exhaustive list of some action items that New York State and City employers are strongly encouraged to follow, in consultation with legal counsel:

  • Review and revise your existing policies, practices, procedures, and training programs, as well as employment contracts, severance agreements, and other contracts to ensure compliance with these new state and city laws.
  • Even if your existing harassment policies comply with the new laws, best practice suggests that you redistribute them.
  • Now that contractors and other non-employees are protected from sexual harassment, you should consider providing training to them if you have not done so already.
  • Do not blindly adopt the state and/or city’s model policies or training programs. These are designed to provide minimum thresholds that you should adjust and build upon based upon the needs of your company.

For more information on what your company can do to ensure compliance with the many new sexual harassment laws imposed on New York State and New York City employers, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq., Partner in the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Partner and Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

New Laws in New York State & City on Workplace Sexual Harassment

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed several new laws imposing requirements on employers in New York State regarding sexual harassment.  New York City employers will be subject to additional requirements, as the city council just passed a package of bills, collectively called the “Stop Sexual Harassment in New York City Act,” which Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign.  New York State and City employers should prepare for these changes and their varying effective dates summarized below.

New York State

  • Employers Cannot Mandate Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Claims – Employers can no longer mandate that employees arbitrate sexual harassment claims unless that prohibition is inconsistent with (a) federal law or (b) a collective bargaining agreement. This provision is sure to be challenged based on preemption under the Federal Arbitration Act, however, unless or until a court rules otherwise, the law will be effective as of July 11, 2018.
  • Most Nondisclosure Agreements are Banned from Sexual Harassment Settlements Unless Sufficient Consent and Notice – Employers who settle sexual harassment claims can no longer include provisions in their settlement agreements preventing the disclosure of facts underlying the claims, unless the complaining party consents to it. He/she must be given 21 days to consider the nondisclosure language and 7 days thereafter to revoke it.  He/she cannot waive this right.  This law takes effect on July 11, 2018.
  • Employers Must Adopt a Policy and Provide Annual Training on Sexual Harassment – The state will establish a model sexual harassment policy and training program that will address specific topics, including information related to what laws workplace sexual harassment violates, remedies available to victims, complaint and investigation procedures, and the additional obligations imposed on supervisory employees to address sexual harassment. Effective October 9, 2018, employers will be required to adopt a policy that meets or exceeds the model policy’s standards, distribute that policy in writing to all of its employees, and implement an annual training program that meets or exceeds the model training program’s standards.  Effective January 1, 2019, most companies bidding for a state contract will be required to accompany their bids with a certification stating that they have a written policy and training program that meets or exceeds the models.
  • Employers Are Now Liable to Non-Employees for Sexual Harassment – Employers will be held liable for sexual harassment committed against contractors, subcontractors, vendors, and others providing services under a contract, where it can be shown that the employer (a) knew or should have known that such non-employee was being harassed but did nothing about it, and (b) has sufficient control and “legal responsibility” with respect to the conduct of the harasser. This law takes effect immediately.
  • Government Employees Must Refund any Taxpayer-Funded Payouts for Sexual Harassment Awards – Effective immediately, employees of the state, political subdivisions or other public entities (including elected officials), who have been found personally liable for sexual harassment in the workplace, must refund to the state/other public entity any payments it made to the plaintiff on that employee’s behalf, within 90 days.

New York City

  • NYC’s Anti-Harassment Statute Will Apply to All Employers – The NYC Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), which governs harassment in the workplace, currently applies to employers with 4 or more employees. Effective immediately following Mayor de Blasio’s signature, the NYCHRL will apply to all employers, regardless of size, with respect to liability for sexual harassment.
  • Sexual Harassment Claims Will be Subject to a Three-Year Statute of Limitations – In its current form, the NYCHRL imposes a one-year statute of limitations on claims of discrimination and harassment. Effective immediately upon signature, that limitations period will be extended to three years for claims of gender-based harassment.
  • NYC Employers Must Provide Annual Sexual Harassment Training – The City will establish a model sexual harassment training program designed to explain what sexual harassment is and what laws it violates, and inform employees about the complaint processes and legal remedies available to them, that retaliation is prohibited, and the heightened duties imposed on supervisory employees to address sexual harassment. Effective April 1, 2019, private City employers with 15 or more employees will be required to provide all employees annual sexual harassment training that meets or exceeds the model program’s standards.  New employees must receive the training within 90 days of hire.  The program must be interactive, but it need not be live.  Employers will be required to maintain records of trainings, including acknowledgement forms.
  • NYC Employers Must Hang a Poster & Distribute a Hand-Out Regarding Sexual Harassment – The City will create a poster and hand-out setting forth employees’ rights regarding workplace sexual harassment. Effective 120 days after Mayor de Blasio’s signature, all employers will be required to mount the poster in a conspicuous place and distribute the handout to all employees.  The poster must be at least 8.5 by 14 inches in size, using at least 12-point font, and posted in both English and Spanish.

Employer To-Do List

The following is a non-exhaustive list of some action items that New York State and City employers are strongly encouraged to follow, in consultation with legal counsel:

  • Review and revise your existing policies, practices, procedures, and training programs, as well as employment contracts, severance agreements, and other contracts to ensure compliance with these new state and city laws.
  • Even if your existing harassment policies comply with the new laws, best practice suggests that you redistribute them.
  • Now that contractors and other non-employees are protected from sexual harassment, you should consider providing training to them if you have not done so already.
  • Do not blindly adopt the state and/or city’s model policies or training programs. These are designed to provide minimum thresholds that you should adjust and build upon based upon the needs of your company.

For more information on what your company can do to ensure compliance with the many new sexual harassment laws imposed on New York State and New York City employers, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq. of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

NYS Attorney General Issues Guidance on Preventing & Correcting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

On December 6, 2017, amidst the recent barrage of publicized sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations made against various news organizations, politicians, and Hollywood elite, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman released “Know Your Rights” guidance on sexual harassment in the workplace.  The purpose of the guidance is to inform New Yorkers about the laws that protect them from sexual harassment at work and to provide victims of sexual harassment with information on the appropriate agencies to consult should they seek to file a complaint or take legal action, along with helplines for further support.  The guidance highlights the following:

Sexual Harassment Defined – Sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature is used as the basis for making employment decisions, like hiring or firing, or is so frequent or severe that it creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

  • The conduct can be verbal, visual and/or physical, such as unsolicited sexual advances, sexually offensive remarks or jokes, comments about a person’s gender or sexual orientation or preferences, unwanted touching, and sexually suggestive gestures.
  • Sexual harassment can be committed by a supervisor, co-worker, or third-party vendor/customer/client who comes into the workplace.
  • Protections apply to both men and women, and same sex harassment is prohibited, regardless of sexual orientation.

Avenues of Relief – Laws prohibiting sexual harassment include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”), the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”), and the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”).  The scope and procedure for filing complaints differ under each law.

  • Those who feel they have been the victim of, or who have observed sexual harassment should first report it to his/her employer pursuant to the employer’s internal policies. Individuals may also consult an attorney to determine whether to file a complaint with a government agency or a lawsuit in state or federal court.
  • Agencies who handle sexual harassment complaints include the New York State Office of the Attorney General Civil Rights Bureau (“OAG”), the New York State Division of Human Rights (“NYSDHR”), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).
    • The OAG represents the People of New York (not the individual complaining party) when it discovers evidence of a pattern, practice, or policy of sexual harassment.
    • The NYSHRL allows individuals to file a complaint against employers of any size with the NYSDHR or proceed directly to court.
    • Sexual harassment complaints under Title VII may only be brought against employers with more than 15 employees and must be filed first with the EEOC before commencing a lawsuit.

No Retaliation – The law also prohibits retaliation against anyone who has filed a complaint about sexual harassment in the workplace.

Criminal Liability – Sexual harassment may constitute a crime, under theories of stalking and/or assault.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem that affects many employees and organizations.  As stated by A.G. Schneiderman, “We all have a stake in preventing [sexual harassment] and stopping it when it happens.”  Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace provides a benefit to employees and employers alike.  Employees have a right to feel secure in the workplace, and employers can have liability in situations where harassing behaviors is permitted whether by supervisors, subordinates, peers, customers, vendors, and contractors. Employers can reduce the risks of claims of sexual harassment in the workplace by arming its employees with tools to deal with inappropriate workplace behavior and sexual harassment allegations.  This includes a well-crafted sexual harassment prevention and complaint policy and routine training for managers and supervisors.

For more information about how anti-harassment laws affect your company or how your company can effectively prevent and address complaints of sexual harassment, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.