13

March, 2022

New Fed Arbitration Ban Warrants Employers Redouble Measures to Prevent Workplace Harassment

By Tracey I. Levy

In the aftermath of #MeToo, state legislatures across the country adopted a range of new employment law protections, typically focused around four objectives:

  • advising employees of their legal rights and obligations and how to raise concerns;
  • expanding the scope and remedies under existing laws;
  • lifting the cloak of secrecy around sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations; and
  • ensuring employees can pursue legal claims in a public judicial forum.

A new federal law, which took effect March 3, 2002, addresses the fourth objective by prohibiting forced arbitration of sexual harassment and sexual assault claims.  The new federal law raises the stakes for employers and warrants revisiting existing measures to prevent incidents of offensive sexual conduct in the workplace.

Advising Employees of Their Legal Rights

New York woke up after #MeToo and has since been at the forefront of the effort to educate employees on the prevention of sexual harassment.  The state mandated both that employers adopt sexual harassment prevention policies that include an array of specific provisions, including a written complaint form, and that they conduct annual sexual harassment prevention training for all employees.  Other states, like California and Connecticut, which had existing harassment prevention training mandates for supervisors, imposed new training requirements applicable to all employees.  And some states imposed requirements only for particular industries.  For example, Illinois targeted restaurants and bars with a requirement to have a written sexual harassment prevention policy with specific provisions, while Washington state mandates sexual harassment prevention training for businesses that employ janitors, security guards, hotel housekeepers, or room service attendants.

Expanding Legal Remedies

New York also was one of the first states to respond by expanding the application of its law against sexual harassment – to every employer in the state, and by including independent contractors within its definition of “employees.”  The initially laws myopically applied only to claims of sexual harassment but were subsequently expanded to include all other protected characteristics.  New York also legislatively defined harassment more broadly than most – to cover any situation in which an employee is subject to “inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment” based on a protected characteristic, without need to prove that the behavior was severe or pervasive.  Other states have made similar changes, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, and Vermont.

Lifting the Cloak of Secrecy

California, New Jersey, New York and Tennessee were among the states to adopt measures restricting employers from imposing nondisclosure or confidentiality requirements in the context of settlements of sexual harassment or sexual assault claims.  Illinois, Maryland and Vermont have gone a step further, by additionally mandating that employers periodically report certain data on sexual harassment complaints to a state government agency.  Congress similarly sought to limit nondisclosure agreements by amending the tax code in December 2017 to prohibit employers from claiming a deduction for any settlement payment or attorney’s fees related to sexual harassment or abuse if the settlement was subject to a nondisclosure agreement.

Preserving the Ability to Sue in Court

Most of the same states that invalidated nondisclosure or confidentiality requirements also declared invalid any pre-dispute arbitration clause applicable to a sexual harassment claim.  Those efforts have been stymied, however, because employers generally have been successful in arguing that the state laws are preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.

Where the New Federal Law Fits In

The new federal law on arbitration of sexual harassment and sexual assault claims avoids the problem the states have faced because it falls outside the scope of the Federal Arbitration Act.  The law also is notably different in scope and import because it:

  • applies to all existing and future pre-dispute arbitration agreements throughout the country;
  • applies to all existing and future class action waiver clauses throughout the country; and
  • grants the party asserting a claim for sexual harassment or sexual assault (whether under federal, state or tribal law) the sole discretion to elect whether to proceed through arbitration or in court, and whether to pursue the claim as a class or collective action.

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the bill’s sponsors, has been quoted as remarking that the new law will force corporate America to “up their game” and adopt new practices.

Employer Actions in a Higher Stakes Environment

Employers looking to decipher what that could mean should start with a two-fold assessment.  First, ensure that you are complying, in all your workplace locations, with the most recent state and local laws regarding harassment prevention.  In particular, confirm that your policies are current, your agreements are compliant, and that you are timely meeting all training requirements.

Second, consider the four objectives that have driven the state legislative responses.  What initiatives might you want to adopt in your workplace to enhance a culture of respect and ensure employees feel comfortable raising concerns?  Are you conducting harassment prevention training at periodic intervals?  Is your harassment prevention training program merely a check-the-compliance-box exercise, or has it been structured, scheduled and promoted to invite heightened awareness and genuine reflection?  Where still legally permissible, what are the upsides and downsides of maintaining confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements, and are they the best approach for your organization at this time of greater transparency?

No employer is immune from complaints of unlawful harassment.  But our experience has been that actions taken by employers to create and sustain a respectful workplace culture can substantially mitigate that risk and create a more productive workplace environment.

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8

December, 2021

3 Actions for NY Employers to Mitigate Risk Under Expansive New Whistleblower Law

By Tracey I. Levy

New York has adopted new whistleblower law protections effective January 26, 2022 that create substantial liability exposure for employers.  Employees – both current and former, as well as individuals working as independent contractors – who report or object to any perceived violation of law, rule, or regulation will be protected against retaliation for making the report.  While lofty in its objectives, enforcement of the whistleblower law will present challenges for employers because it cloaks anti-retaliation protections around employees in a myriad of new circumstances.  Fortunately, there are some concrete actions that employers can take to help mitigate those risks.

Expansive Scope

Currently, employees are protected against retaliation under state law in discrete, and limited contexts, such as in regard to complaints of harassment or discrimination under the New York State Human Rights Law, or complaints by health care employees regarding conduct presenting a significant threat to public health or safety under the whistleblower law prior to its recent amendments.  The new whistleblower law extends those protections to the following covered conduct:

  • any report that an individual “reasonably believes” to be in violation of any law, rule or regulation – involving any level or branch of government, and regardless whether the reported violation pertains to a matter within the employee’s purview, and
  • any activity, policy or practice the employee “reasonably believes” presents a “substantial and specific danger” to public health or safety.

Employees are encouraged to report covered conduct to any public body – again at any level or branch of government – including law enforcement at any level and any member or employee of a legislative or judicial body.

Prerequisite to Public Reporting

Before disclosing a legal violation to a public body, the employee must have made a “good faith” effort to notify a supervisor of the violation and allowed the organization a reasonable opportunity to correct it.  However, the new law recognizes many exceptions to this internal notice requirement including when there is:

  • imminent and serious danger to public health or safety;
  • risk to endangering the welfare of a minor;
  • reasonable belief that reporting to the supervisor would result in destruction or concealment of evidence;
  • reasonable belief that reporting internally will lead to physical harm to the employee or to other individuals; or
  • reasonable belief that the supervisor already knows of the covered conduct and will not correct the issue.

Protected Actions

whistleblower protections will apply if the employee experiences any retaliatory adverse action taken to discharge, threaten, penalize or in any other manner discriminate against the employee – including in regard to terms and conditions of employment, current or future employment, or reporting suspected citizenship or immigration status of an employee or family or household member – because the employee either:

  • disclosed or threatened to disclose covered conduct;
  • participated in an investigation of such conduct; or
  • objected or refused to participate in any such conduct.

Abundant Remedies

Employees are afforded a private civil right of action, with a right to a jury trial, for claimed violations of the whistleblower law, and can be awarded the full panoply of legal remedies, including injunctive relief, reinstatement or front pay, back pay, and their legal costs and attorneys’ fees.  Punitive damages are also available if the employee establishes the employer’s violation of the whistleblower law was “willful, malicious or wanton.”   In addition, employers face a civil penalty of up to $10,000.  An employee faces liability to the employer for legal fees and costs if a court finds that the whistleblower action is frivolous.

Why Employers Should Be Concerned

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s charge filing statistics reflect that retaliation claims, which hovered in the 25 to 30 percent range for nearly a decade, began increasing steadily starting in 2007, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court in Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Co. v. White adopted a broad definition of retaliatory behavior under Title VII.  Last year, nearly 56 percent of all charges filed with the EEOC included a retaliation claim.  New York employers should similarly anticipate that, with the grounds for invoking whistleblower protections vastly expanded, and the state law definition of what comprises retaliatory conduct newly broadened, they too will face a significant risk of having to defend a whistleblower claim.

Three Employer Actions

Posting:

Employers are required to post a notice that informs employees of their protections, rights and obligations under the new whistleblower law, but the Department of Labor has not yet issued that form notice.

Policy:

While the law does not require employers to adopt a whistleblower policy, it would be prudent for those employers that do not already have such a policy in place to add it to their employee handbooks.

Training:

Further, because this law centers around the actions of supervisors – in receiving employee concerns of covered conduct, and in how they treat an employee after a report is made – employers may want to educate (or reinforce existing training for) their supervisors with regard to:

  • the employer’s expectations on compliance with legal obligations and maintaining a safe workplace;
  • the appropriate reporting channels to escalate questions or concerns regarding possible legal violations or unsafe conditions;
  • the conduct covered by the whistleblower law;
  • how to respond to employee concerns related to covered conduct;
  • the prohibition against retaliation, with examples of prohibited actions; and
  • how to engage with an employee after that employee has reported a concern related to covered conduct.

Consistent guidance and regular training are employers’ best options to prepare supervisors to respond appropriately when employees raise concerns that might bring them within the protections of the whistleblower law, and thereby reduce their risk of liability.

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19

August, 2021

The Lines Have Been Redrawn; “Build Back Better” with Respectful Workplaces in New York

By Tracey I. Levy

Perhaps one of the most troubling quotes coming out of the investigation of sexual harassment allegations raised against Governor Andrew Cuomo was his statement, “In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn.”  He added, “There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate.”

Indeed, there have been “generational and cultural shifts,” which were accelerated by the #MeToo movement.  The lines have been redrawn, expectations have shifted, and many organizations began revising their policies and practices years ago to hold employees to a higher standard of acceptable workplace behavior.  The law itself shifted substantially in New York State beginning in 2019, and employees (particularly managers) who do not recognize that shift now present a liability issue for their organizations.

Formerly, harassment was defined by the courts in New York, which looked to federal law to provide a wordy definition, considering, with respect to unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic, whether submitting to the conduct was made explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment; submitting to or rejecting the conduct was used as the basis for employment decisions affecting an individual; or the conduct had the purpose or effect of “unreasonably interfering” with an individual’s work performance or creating an “intimidating, hostile or offensive” working environment, with the final element requiring consideration of whether the behavior was so severe or pervasive as to rise to the level of actionable harassment.  The standard is a mouthful to recite, hard to memorize, and overwhelming on a powerpoint slide.

In 2019, as part of Governor Cuomo’s “Women’s Justice Agenda,” the governor signed into law sweeping changes with regard to the legal standard and enforcement provisions for claims of sexual harassment.  Significantly, the law adopted a new, far simpler definition of sexual harassment (which was subsequently broadened to harassment based on other protected characteristics), as subjecting an individual “to inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment based on” a protected characteristic.  Not only is the new standard pithy, but the law then expressly goes on to state that an individual need not show that the behavior is severe or pervasive.  Rather, it is for the employer to demonstrate that the conduct was nothing more than a “petty slight” or “trivial inconvenience.”  The legal bar for asserting unlawful harassment dropped precipitously with the new law, and the governor’s press release at the time expressly quoted him trumpeting that change: “By ending the absurd legal standard that sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be ‘severe or pervasive’ and making it easier for workplace sexual harassment claims to be brought forward, we are sending a strong message that time is up on sexual harassment in the workplace and setting the standard of equality for women.”

So how could the very individual who made these legal changes a centerpiece of his legislative agenda have fallen so far short in his own behavior?  Why, in 2021, are we still so fervently teaching the lessons of #MeToo, and how can we effectuate lasting change?  These are the questions that keep me up at night, and that I mull over at random hours.  How do we “build back better” when it comes to workplace culture?

I have no magic antidotes, but certain elements are important in progressing toward a more comfortable workplace.

Commitment from Senior Leadership

As with so many other organizational changes, there needs to be buy-in from the top.  If senior leadership shares the New York governor’s perspective, little if anything will change in their organizations.  Senior managers need to lead by example – both in articulating a commitment to providing a respectful workplace, and in conducting themselves publicly and privately in a manner that comports with that articulated standard.

Putting Sidewalks Around the Law

Preventing harassment based on sex and other protected characteristics is the legal standard.  But when that is our only goal, we end up quibbling about whether an individual’s behaviors do or do not exceed the level of a “petty slight” or what we mean by a “trivial inconvenience.”  Organizations should aim for something broader – offering a “respectful” workplace to employees and everyone else in the workplace.  We need to define what we mean by “respectful,” and that definition should both embody and exceed the legal standard.  Perhaps that means that an organization equally prohibits bullying behavior, which is not singling someone out based on a protected characteristic, but which most certainly can create an uncomfortable or intimidating work environment.  Or perhaps the organization wants to define expectations with regard to how employees communicate with one another – that such communications should be civil, and that employees should be able to articulate their perspective and have their views duly considered.  Alternatively or additionally, employers might address respectful behavior in terms of collaboration, and fostering a team environment where individuals feel supported.  The common and essential component of all these definitions is that they put “sidewalks” around the law by setting forth standards that embody and exceed the current legal standard.  When our goal is broader than the legal standard, the harassment takes care of itself so to speak, in the sense that it is definitionally inconsistent with and therefore should not be occurring in a truly “respectful” work environment.

It Takes a Village

Managers cannot single-handedly root out harassing behavior or impose a culture of respect, nor can any individual or series of complaints give rise to lasting organizational change.  Rather, an organization needs to encourage, empower, and perhaps even mandate that its employees go from bystanders to “upstanders.”  Here the New York City subway safety tagline is most apt – “if you see something, say something,” and that is the mantra to be inculcated throughout the organization.  But it is not sufficient to adopt a catchy refrain.  Employees need to be trained – on what the standards and expectations are for measuring appropriate behavior, about how they can intervene, and on where to submit concerns.  The New York State or New York City versions of the mandatory harassment prevention training programs are not sufficient for that purpose.  Rather, targeted messages, specific to those expectations, need to be communicated to employees and then reinforced at periodic intervals.

You May Need to Change

At times, a manager will seek to excuse questioned behavior with a comment along the lines that the manager is “no different than I was when I started working here,” however many years ago that may have been.  In a nutshell, the manager’s comment precisely illustrates the problem.  The lines have been redrawn.  We are holding employees, and everyone in the workplace, to a higher standard than was the case in 2017.  But that higher standard may not be the optimal objective from a cultural perspective.  Creating a comfortable, respectful workplace requires organizations to do more.  In doing so, an organization may also reap manifold benefits in employee morale, retention, and productivity, as well as reputation, that “build back better” and even help the organization’s bottom line.

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30

November, 2020

Three Key Employment Items to Address Before the New Year

By Tracey I. Levy and Alexandra Lapes

As the new year quickly approaches, employers should aim to update their policies and practices to stay legally compliant and prepare their workforce for the new year.   In particular, employers in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey need to ensure they are complying with harassment prevention training requirements, have updated their sick and safe leave and their harassment and discrimination prevention policies, and have updated their procedures to meet new notice, payroll, and tracking requirements.

1. Training

This is year two for meeting the annual New York State and New York City interactive sexual harassment prevention training requirements.  Employers that have not yet conducted training this year should make that a priority before year-end to remain in compliance at both the state and city levels.  Note, for new hires, New York City requires employers with 15 or more employees to conduct initial training within their first 90 days, and all other New York employers are subject to the state’s requirement for training to be conducted as soon as practicable after hire.  When conducting the training, employees must be provided with a copy of the employer’s sexual harassment prevention policy, training materials, and a notice of employee rights.

Connecticut employers are also required to conduct sexual harassment prevention training, and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities recently extended that deadline to January 1, 2021.  Employers with three or more employees must train all their employees, while the smallest employers need only train those in a supervisory role.  Meeting this training obligation will satisfy an employer’s legal requirements for the next ten years as to existing employees, but on an ongoing basis, new hires need to be trained within six months after they are hired.

2. Policies

Employers should review and revise their employee handbook policies on sick and safe leave, harassment prevention, and anti-discrimination, to ensure compliance with recent changes in the law.

  • Sick and safe leave
    • New York State adopted a state-wide paid sick leave law (in addition to the pandemic-related paid leave law), that requires employers to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave per year, depending on the size of the employer.
    • New York City expanded its paid sick leave law to mirror and expand upon the state law provisions. The amendments will require New York City employers to update their paid leave policies to reflect the new updated accrual amounts and eliminate certain eligibility and waiting period requirements, as well as to add “domestic violence” as an additional basis for taking leave.
    • While Westchester County has its own paid sick leave law, the county has posted a notice on its website that the state law now governs paid leave and employers should refer to the state law for their rights and obligations. Note that there is no similar notice with regard to the Westchester County paid safe leave law, and employers should therefore assume that the safe leave law’s separate paid leave requirements are still in full force.
  • Harassment and discrimination prevention
    • Employers in New York State should update their harassment prevention policies to reflect the State Human Rights Law’s new definition of sexual harassment.
    • New York State employers must also update their policies to provide employees with appropriate notice of their rights and remedies with regard to reproductive health decisions, including a prohibition against discrimination and retaliation based on an employee’s or an employee’s dependent’s reproductive health decision-making.

3. Notice Requirements

The following payroll and tracking procedures must be put in place, in addition to meeting new notice and posting requirements.

  • Payroll and Tracking
  • New York State employers must:
    • Maintain paid sick leave records for no less than six years; and
    • Be prepared to timely provide employees with a summary of the amount of sick leave accrued and used upon request.
  • New York City employers must additionally provide:
    • Accrual, usage, and paid sick leave balance information to employees each pay period;
    • Written notice by January 1, 2021 (see notice link here) of employees’ paid sick leave rights at hire and to current employees of organizations with 100 or more employees, and conspicuously post that notice; and
    • Retain compliance records for at least three years.
  • Westchester County employers must additionally provide:
    • A Notice of Employee Rights and a copy of the County’s Safe Leave Law to all new hires; and
    • Display the required Safe Time poster both in English and Spanish, in a conspicuous location.
  • New Jersey employers with 10 or more employees must ensure they have:
    • Updated their payroll statements to ensure that they each specify: the employee’s gross and net wages; the employee’s rate of pay; and, for hourly employees, the number of hours worked during the pay period.
  • Job Protection
  • New Jersey employers must have conspicuously posted (as of April 1, 2020), two notices regarding employee misclassification.
  • Connecticut employers must provide information on the illegality of sexual harassment and remedies available to new hires within three months of their start date and send this information to each employee.
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12

August, 2019

New York State Amends Other HRL Discrimination Protections – Broad Protections Expanded Well Beyond Sexual Harassment

By Tracey I. Levy, Esq. and Alexandra Lapes, Esq.

Just over a year after New York enacted sweeping protections against sexual harassment, Governor Cuomo today signed into law further amendments to the New York State Human Rights Law to provide more expansive protections for employees based on any protected characteristic.

SPECIAL ALERT – IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED

Distribute Policy for Harassment Prevention Training

Of most immediate concern, employers who are racing to comply with the October 9 deadline for year one of harassment prevention training should note that, effective immediately, employers are mandated to distribute a copy of their sexual harassment prevention policy at every training session, as well as at hire, both in English and in the employee’s primary language.

Other Significant Changes

In addition to the policy distribution requirement, New York State’s new law extends the Human Rights Law’s requirements to employers of any size, as well as domestic workers, and expands the law’s protections to contractors, consultants and vendors who can show the employer knew or should have known of discrimination directed at them and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action that was within its ability.

In addition, the new law:

  • Broadly defines unlawful harassment as subjecting an individual to inferior terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of an individual’s protected characteristic(s);
  • Eliminates the employee’s obligation to prove that harassing conduct is severe and/or pervasive;
  • Declares that an employee need not show that a comparative individual was treated more favorably;
  • Mandates that the state’s Human Rights Law be construed liberally, regardless of how comparable federal or other states’ laws may be interpreted; and
  • Eliminates the employer’s ability to defend the complaint on the grounds that the employee failed to raise an internal complaint;
  • But it permits employers to defend a claim by proving that the harassing conduct does not rise above the level of what a reasonable person in the shoes of the plaintiff would consider petty slights or trivial inconveniences.

For most employers, these changes will not require any revisions to their existing harassment prevention policy.  However, the “sidewalks” that most policies build around the legal standards have now gotten much narrower, and the amendments collectively make it significantly easier for an employee to support a legal claim of unlawful harassment.  Procedurally, the law increases the remedies available in litigation to include punitive damages and attorneys’ fees for a prevailing plaintiff (while an employer can seek recovery of its attorneys’ fees only if it shows the case was frivolous); and extends the statute of limitations for sexual harassment claims from one to three years.  With the exception of the change in the statute of limitations (which takes effect one year after enactment of the new law), all these changes take effect within the next 60 to 180 days.

Moving beyond litigation, the new law expands the confidentiality and mandatory arbitration clause restrictions adopted last year for sexual harassment claims to now apply to any claim of harassment or discrimination under the Human Rights Law, and it voids out any confidentiality clause to the extent it precludes participation in a government agency investigation or impedes a complainant’s filing for unemployment insurance, Medicaid or other public benefits.  As of January 1, 2020, any non-disclosure provision to which a complainant affirmatively consents must include language confirming that it does not prevent the employee from speaking with law enforcement, a human rights enforcement agency, or an attorney.

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