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New York Court Explains Vicarious Liability for a Hostile Work Environment

December 11, 2020

Discriminatory remarks and actions in the workplace can make a job unbearable and often form the basis of a hostile work environment claim. In many instances, one person or a limited group of people will partake in the discriminatory behavior, and they will be deemed liable while the company as a whole will not be responsible for the harm suffered. In some cases, though, a company may be found vicariously liable for its employees’ wrongful acts, as discussed in a recent New York opinion arising out of a hostile work environment lawsuit. If you were the victim of pervasive discrimination in the workplace, it is prudent to consult a dedicated New York hostile discrimination attorney to assess your options for seeking damages.

Factual Background

Allegedly, the plaintiff identifies as gender non-conforming and gay. He worked for the defendant glass company as a purchaser. In 2015, the defendant supervisor was placed in charge of the plaintiff. She immediately began treating the plaintiff differently than the other workers, frequently making comments about his sexuality and gender. Although there was no company procedure for dealing with discrimination, he reported the defendant supervisor’s behavior to the company owner, who stated he would speak to the defendant supervisor.

It is reported that the defendant supervisor was issued a warning; nevertheless, the discrimination continued. The handbook in effect at that time contained an anti-discrimination policy and a system of progressive discipline, but the defendant company did not adhere to the procedure. The plaintiff again complained to the company owner, and shortly thereafter, he was terminated. He filed a lawsuit against the defendants alleging, in part, that the defendant company was vicariously liable for the hostile work environment created by the defendant supervisor. The defendants then filed a motion for summary judgment.

An Employer’s Vicarious Liability for a Hostile Work Environment

Initially, the inquiry established that the plaintiff submitted sufficient evidence that the defendant supervisor’s behavior created a hostile work environment. The court then turned to the issue of whether the defendant company could be held vicariously liable for the supervisor’s behavior. The court rejected the defendant company’s argument that only the owner should be considered a supervisor as he was the only person with the ability to hire or fire people.

The court explained that the conduct of employees who may affect a significant change in another party’s employment status might be imputed on an employer as well. The court elaborated that when an employer confines decision-making power to a small number of people who have the ability to exercise discretion regarding making decisions, the employer effectively delegates the power to make employment actions to those employees. In the subject case, the court found that a rational jury could find that the defendant supervisor affected a substantial change in the plaintiff’s employment, and therefore the defendant company could be deemed vicariously liable.

Confer With an Employment Attorney in New York

Employers must provide their employees with a work environment that is free from discrimination, and if they fail to do so, they may be deemed liable for any losses suffered. If you were subjected to pervasive offensive statements at work, you may be able to pursue a hostile work environment claim and should speak to a lawyer. The seasoned employment attorneys of Gerstman Schwartz LLP can assess the circumstances surrounding your harm and advise you of your potential claims. You can contact us via our online form or at (212) 227-7070 for our Manhattan office or at (516) 880-8170 for our Garden City office to schedule a conference.

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