Employment discrimination is not limited to private employers. Unfortunately, even in a state with as progressive a reputation as New York, there are many parts of the government that engage in illegal discrimination based on sex, race, and disability. New York State's highest court recently held that victims of such discrimination are not only entitled to compensation, but the state may have to pay their attorneys' fees, as well.
State Cited for “Continued Defiance” of Court Orders
At the heart of the May 9 ruling by the New York Court of Appeals is one of the most egregious examples of sexual harassment and sex discrimination in state history. For 14 years, the plaintiff in this case worked as a New York State trooper, “often as the first woman to serve as a State Trooper at that station,” according to the court. In a 1995 lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that she had been subject to years of a “hostile work environment.”
“Hostile” was putting it mildly. According to court records, not only did the plaintiff's co-workers repeatedly harass her by posting naked drawings of her, demanding she perform sexual acts on them, et al., at one point she was physically assaulted and required hospitalization and extended work leave.
After state officials repeatedly ignored the plaintiff's complaints, she finally filed a sexual harassment lawsuit. That was in 1995. The state then spent more than 10 years engaging in “obstructionist and delaying tactics,” in the words of an intermediate appellate court, which eventually sanctioned the government for its “continued defiance” of orders to produce information relevant to the lawsuit.
Eventually, a jury heard the case and awarded the plaintiff over $700,000. Her attorneys then sought fees and costs under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), a state law that authorizes payments of “fees and other expenses incurred by such party in any civil action brought against the state,” unless the state can prove its position during the litigation was “substantially justified” or that an award would somehow be “unjust.”
The EAJA also does not apply where another state law permits an award of fees. New York's Human Rights Law, which covers the type of sexual harassment experienced by the plaintiff in this case, actually was amended in 2015 to expressly provide for fees and costs. But that took place after the plaintiff's lawsuit began more than 20 years ago.
As the Court of Appeals explained, the history of the EAJA clearly indicates that its intent is to “improve access to justice for individuals and businesses who may not have the resources to sustain a long legal battle against the State.” That is exactly what happened here, the court said. The state defended its failure to “address rampant sex discrimination” in its police ranks while employing litigation tactics “designed to wear down plaintiff and exhaust her resources.”
Are You a Victim of Employment Discrimination?
The Court of Appeals' decision is a common-sense victory for victims of employment discrimination at the hands of state agencies. If you have been the victim of any kind of workplace discrimination, whether from a private or public employer, and need to speak with a qualified New York employment law attorney, contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar today.