Is My Employer Liable if Customers Harass Me?

Employment discrimination is usually discussed in the context of the supervisor-employee relationship. An employer can also be held liable for worker-on-worker and even customer-on-worker harassment based on sex, race, disability, or another legally protected characteristic. This is not to say that every single act of third-party harassment will trigger an employer's liability, but if the plaintiff can show such acts created a “hostile work environment,” then he or she may be entitled to damages under federal, state, or city discrimination laws.

Judge: Ex-Retail Clerk can Sue for Harassment Under NYCHRL

Here is an illustration of how courts assess “customer harassment” complaints. This is taken from a recent ruling by a federal judge in Manhattan in an ongoing sex discrimination case. The plaintiff worked as a sales associate for the defendant, a large national clothing retailer, until she said she was forced to quit due to the company's mishandling of her customer harassment complaints.

Specifically, the plaintiff has alleged two such incidents of harassment. The fist incident occurred when store security caught a customer “photographing or videotaping up [the plaintiff's] skirt while she was on the stairs.” Although the customer was ejected, the plaintiff said this incident led to a deterioration in her relationship with store management. She said management did not handle the incident properly, and when she complained a manager called her a “stupid bitch” and demanded she “drop things.”

Later, there was a second incident where another customer physically assaulted the plaintiff, initially grabbing and licking her face, then attempting to grab her chest. Again, the customer was ejected, but the plaintiff said that management made no effort to contact the police. Furthermore, the plaintiff said the defendant retaliated against her for complaining about the first customer harassment incident by re-assigning her to other tasks and shifts. This led to her quitting and filing a lawsuit.

The judge presiding over the case held the plaintiff alleged sufficient acts of customer harassment to sustain a claim under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), though not under New York State law. The state law, the judge explained, requires proof that an employer is a “party to the discriminatory conduct.” The city law, in contrast, imposes a broader duty on employers to be “proactive” once it is notified of customer harassment. This duty “is not necessarily satisfied by ejecting the offending customer from the store,” the judge noted. Since there is a dispute over whether the defendant in this case failed to be proactive in responding to the plaintiff's harassment complaints, the judge said a jury would have to decide.

Are You the Victim of a Hostile Work Environment? We can Help

As an employee you have the right to work in an environment free of any illegal harassment. This applies regardless of whether the harasser is a supervisor, a co-worker, or even a customer. If you feel your employer has not done enough to combat harassment or similar discriminatory conduct and you need advice from a qualified New York employment attorney, contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar at (646) 760-6493 today.