(800) 585-4658

How to Identify and Respond to Workplace Harassment: Legal Insights from Leeds Brown Law

How to Identify and Respond to Workplace Harassment: Legal Insights from Leeds Brown Law

Workplace harassment lawsuits often begin with an event

Workplace harassment lawsuits often begin with an event.  An outrageous word, action, or decision can be the last straw in a string of offensive or discriminatory treatment.  Or a single important decision – like to terminate, to deny advancement, or never to hire or consider at all – can drastically reduce a worker’s prospects for rewarding employment.

Racial or sex-based comments

Racial insults, or slurs, are a common place for discrimination lawss to begin.  A lawsuit against a major New York university began with accounts of a comparison of a mailroom worker born in Africa to an animal, to someone speaking gibberish, and to an illegal immigrant.  A multi-million-dollar settlement involving a New York restaurant began with other slurs against Hispanic and Black employees, as well as offensive touching of a Black female worker.  A settlement for more than $20 million in the insurance industry resulted from female employees’ complaints of being compared to prostitutes, and subjected to improper advances of a sexual nature at work, as well as being denied promotions and equal pay with the men in the offices. 

Quid pro quo versus hostile work environment

An employer and a supervisor have a duty to use reasonable efforts to correct sexually harassing conduct.  This conduct may include demands of sexual acts in order to gain or keep employment, or to earn some favorable transfer or promotion.  Or it may be aggressive or improper sexual contact or touching, comparison to a “slut” or prostitute, and being made victim of false rumors of a sexual nature.  A hostile work environment arises when a serious or repeated incident like these occurs in a workplace, triggering the duty of the employer and its officials to prevent it.

Exclusion and silencing

A recent racial discrimination trial in New York City involving a major law firm brought to light perceptions that a Black lawyer at the firm complained about implicit biases resulting in fewer assignments that might develop the lawyer’s skills and contribute to his partnership chances.  Embarrassing and detrimental conduct alleged in the suit included performance reviews that did not reflect the informal positive comments the attorney received for his work.  A substantial settlement in the agricultural sector involved seasonal Black agricultural workers who were excluded from the best fields for vegetable picking, their income being linked to weight picked.  An Indian-American employee in the financial industry complained about not being given the same training and advancement opportunities as white colleagues (and being called a terrorist).

Sometimes the exclusion results from seemingly neutral policies.  Police and fire departments, for example, have paid out millions in settlements for promotional procedures that result in fewer opportunities for Black cops or firefighters.  Other times, a mass layoff or targeted firings in an office or department may fall more heavily on women or racial or ethnic minorities, resulting in allegations of disparate impact or disparate treatment based on sex, race, or other unlawful grounds.

How to respond to workplace harassment

Federal, state, and city laws provide numerous rights for workers.  Since 1964, and even before that for government employees, federal civil rights law has provided a right for employees to work in an environment free from harassment or discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, color, and things like national origin or familial language.  In New York State, statewide and city or county human rights laws provide similar protections against racial, sex-based, or ethnic discrimination, and add other protected categories (like citizenship or immigration status, familial or marital status, gender identity or expression, or status as a victim of domestic violence).  In addition, special laws like those relating to members of the U.S. armed forces, persons experiencing a disability, workers who are older or are nearing retirement age or a pension, workers with family care or medical issues leading to leaves of absence, and pregnant workers add to the layers of rights that employees have relating to prohibited discrimination.

One way that an attorney can aid an employee is by filing a complain with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The commission helps implement the laws on sex, race and color discrimination, as well as other forms of discrimination.  While a person can contact it on his or her own, an attorney can help pursuance the EEOC to file, decide, and even settle a harassment or discrimination case.  It files cases about failures to hire women or racial/ethnic minorities, comments/graffiti/threatening symbols in the workplace, refusals to promote or equally train workers of all backgrounds, and discriminatory layoffs or forcing out workers.   

In 1980, the EEOC decided that “sexual harassment” is adverse sex discrimination under civil rights law. The EEOC is “focused on the eradication of race and color discrimination from the 21st century workplace and is seeking to retool its enforcement efforts to address contemporary forms of overt, subtle and implicit bias.”

With an attorney, or even on their own, workers can go to federal or state court without a decision or support from the EEOC, in appropriate cases.  Similarly, an employee can file state or city law employees in an appropriate court, although institutions like the New York Division of Human Rights enforces the state human rights law, which prohibits sexual harassment inclusive of harassment on sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity.  Lawsuits alleging discrimination are often filed as class actions because they reflect one or more common issues of fact or law, like whether sexual or racial harassment occurred or how supervisors responded to individual workers’ applications for promotions or complaints of misconduct.  A significant class action in the workplace area may settle for $100 million or more.

In New York City, the law provides additional rights to victims of harassment.  Part of it clarifies that an employer is responsible for misconduct by employee or agent when the employee or agent is a manager or supervisor, the employer or its manager knew about the misconduct and “failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action,” or the “employer should have known of the employee’s or agent’s discriminatory conduct and failed to exercise reasonable diligence to prevent” it.  The New York courts have stated that New York city law may allow fewer employers to defend lawsuits by adopting “affirmative anti-discrimination policies.”  As a result, New York City may impose “strict liability” on some employers. 

Next steps

Leeds Brown Law P.C. is experienced in employment class actions.  In cases involving racial and ethnic minorities in the financial sector, the firm has obtained settlements benefiting various classes of employees.  In age discrimination case involving a class of older workers at an insurance company, it won praise for its professionalism during the federal court proceedings.  In a case involving the grocery chain Aldi, it worked with other law firms to obtain a judge’s approval of $9.8 million settlement on behalf of store managers across the nation.  A New York appeals court granted its motion to file a class action involving employees at Jenny Craig’s branches and locations in New York.  A federal court in Long Island granted its motion to allow 2,000 financial service workers to opt into a settlement of their wage and hour claims.  It has also been appointed to serve on a class action executive committee in a matter involving Walmart Inc. and consumer claims.

Workers who have been discriminated against, suffered a hostile or abusive environment at work, or have been denied a job or a promotion may particularly benefit from pursuing collective action with the aid of an experienced lawyer.

It is important to know your rights when it comes to harassment, discrimination, and equal opportunity employers.  A free consultation can help you understand your rights and take action to protect them, including by contacting human resources or the government.

Request Free Consultation

Please complete the form below to request a free and confidential consultation. We will immediately review your submission and contact you if we can help.