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.