Employers Strictly Liable for Supervisors’ Sexual Harassment Under New York City Human Rights Law

Earlier this year, New York State’s highest court ruled that, under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), employers are strictly liable for harassment and discrimination committed by supervisors. The case, Zakrzewska v. The New School, concludes that an affirmative defense available to employers under federal anti-discrimination laws does not apply under the NYCHRL.

The case involves Dominika Zakrzewska, a student at The New School who also worked part time in the school’s Academic Computing Center. Ms. Zakrzewska claims her immediate supervisor, Kwang-Wen Pan, sent her harassing emails and otherwise sexually harassed her. She eventually complained to school officials about the harassment. She also claims Mr. Pan began to secretly monitor her Internet use at work, in retaliation for her accusing him of sexual harassment. Ms. Zakrzewska sued Mr. Pan and The New School in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of the NYCHRL.

As the New York Court of Appeals explained, under federal anti-discrimination laws a company can avoid liability for harassment committed by one of its supervisors if it can prove that: (1) the employee did not suffer an adverse employment action, such as being fired, demoted, or given an unfavorable work assignment for a discriminatory reason, (2) the company took prompt and reasonable care to prevent and correct the harassment once it learned about it, and (3) the employee unreasonably failed to use an opportunity the employer provided to help prevent or correct the harassment, such as filing a complaint under the company’s anti-discrimination policy. This defense, which comes from the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, is known as the Faragher/Ellerth defense.

In Zakrzewska, the District Judge asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit whether the Faragher/Ellerth defense is available under the NYCHRL. The Second Circuit then asked the New York Court of Appeals to answer the same question. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defense is not available under NYCHRL. Rather, under the NYCHRL employers are strictly liable for harassment committed by their managers and supervisors. This means a company can be held liable for harassment by a supervisor even if the employee who was harassed never reported it and the company was unaware the harassment occurred. The Court of Appeals also indicated that employers can be held liable for harassment by non-supervisors if it knew or should have known about the harassment, but either permitted it to happen or failed to immediate take appropriate actions to stop it.

If you have experienced discrimination or harassment by your employer in New York City or New Jersey, you should contact an experienced harassment lawyer to learn more about your employment law rights.

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