When is My Employer Liable for a Coworker Sexually Harassing Me?

Sexual harassment often reflects a larger problem within a company. But as a matter of federal employment law, the U.S. Supreme Court has said an employer is not automatically liable for illegal harassment committed by an employee. That said, if the harasser was the victim's supervisor, then the employer can be held strictly liable. Even if the harasser was simply a co-worker without managerial authority, the employer may still be responsible “if it was negligent in controlling working conditions,” according to the Supreme Court.

NYS Agency Faces Trial Over Negligence in Allowing Harassment

This means that defining the employment status of a harasser is critical in any litigation. Consider this recent case from Manhattan. The plaintiff worked for a state agency. From the outset of her employment, she alleged another employee routinely sexually harassed her. Among other examples, the plaintiff said the employee told her she “reminded him of a stripper and that she had the goods…the top, and the bottom.” In general, the plaintiff said the employee consistently used “sexual, inappropriate terms and expressed himself inappropriately toward” her.

The plaintiff complained to a supervisor about the employee's behavior. The supervisor acknowledged there was a problem, ut no formal disciplinary action was taken. The plaintiff later said the employee threatened to report her for insubordination when she made a legitimate work-related inquiry.

At this point the agency began a formal investigation, but ultimately determined that the plaintiff's allegations of sexual harassment “could not be substantiated” and once again, no action was taken against the employee. The plaintiff, who required psychiatric care as a result of the sexual harassment, was unable to return to work and was eventually fired.

The plaintiff eventually sued the agency for sex discrimination. On November 20, a federal judge refused the defense's motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff's sexual harassment-related claims. On one issue, the judge sided with the defense. The plaintiff alleged that the harasser was a “supervisor” because he had the authority to discipline “or at least recommend” disciplinary action against her during the term of her employment. The judge said that was insufficient to create a supervisory relationship. The critical test is whether the purported supervisor can “take tangible employment actions against the victim” that results in a “significant change in employment status.” That was not the case here, the judge said.

While the judge disagreed with the plaintiff's characterization of her harasser as a “supervisor,” he said she could still proceed on the basis the agency's own alleged “negligence” in controlling working conditions. Given the agency's alleged failure to respond to the plaintiff's initial sexual harassment complaint, its refusal to “monitor the workplace” for inappropriate behavior, and the lack of an “adequate system for registering complaints,” the judge said that it was appropriate to submit these issues to a jury.

Get Help With Your Sexual Harassment Complaint

If you are the victim of sexual harassment at work, do not assume the problem will go away on its own. While it is important to utilize any internal process for lodging a harassment complaint, you should also speak with a qualified New York employment attorney who can help you explore all of your legal options. Call the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar at 800.496.3076 to schedule a consultation.

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