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Dramatic Changes in New York’s Sexual Harassment Laws

New York State has made dramatic changes in its sexual harassment laws that will cover a broader range of harassing conduct, make it easier to prove that your employer is liable for harassment by a co-worker, increase the potential for large damages awards, and extend the statute of limitations for filing claims.

A Lower Burden of Proof

New York law used to protect employees against sexual harassment only if they could prove that the conduct was “severe and pervasive.”  The new law protects employees against harassment based on sex or any other protected characteristic “regardless of whether such harassment would be considered severe or pervasive.”  An employee who has been subjected to sexual and other forms of harassment can win by showing that the conduct amounted to more than “petty slights and trivial inconveniences.”

Employers Lose a Defense

The new law eliminates an employer’s defense based on an employee’s failure to make a formal complaint to the company.  Under the new law, “[t]he fact that such individual did not make a complaint about the harassment to such employer [] shall not be determinative of whether such employer [] shall be liable.”  The new law covers all employees at all employers, regardless of the size of the employer.  It also covers domestic workers.

A Longer Statute of Limitations  

Employees will have three years to file sexual harassment claims.  Discrimination claims based on other protected factors will still be subject to a one-year statute of limitations.

Punitive Damages and Attorneys’ Fees Are Recoverable

The new law allows employees to collect punitive damages for employment discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.  It also provides that a plaintiff who prevails in an employment discrimination, harassment, or retaliation case “shall” be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees.  An employer who prevails in such a case, however, may only recover attorneys’ fees if the plaintiff’s claims were frivolous.

A Liberal Construction to “Maximize Deterrence”

The new law makes clear that it should be construed liberally in order to “maximize deterrence of discriminatory conduct,” even when such a construction would conflict with federal law.

While these improvements are welcome, the laws governing workplace harassment remain complicated.  If you are facing harassment in the workplace based on your sex, race, religion, or other impermissible factor, you should consult with an experienced employment lawyer to protect your rights.  You may be entitled to compensatory and punitive damages, equitable relief such as reinstatement if you have been fired, and other remedies.

To speak with an experienced employment lawyer today, call John Howley, Esq. at (212) 601-2728.

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