Nurse Sufficiently Alleges Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

In Haight v NYU Langone Med. Ctr. (decided June 27, 2014), the Southern District of New York held that plaintiff, a pediatric nurse, sufficiently pleaded claims for hostile work environment sexual harassment, disability discrimination, and negligent hiring/retention.

Plaintiff alleged, among other things, that a co-worker discussed plaintiff’s medical problems with other NYU employees, put her hands down plaintiff’s underwear, and improperly accessed her medical records.

As to plaintiff’s hostile work environment sexual harassment claim, the court held:

[T]he Complaint alleges sufficient facts to state a claim for hostile work environment under the Title VII [of the Civil Rights of 1964]/[New York State Human Rights Law] standard. NYU argues that the Complaint does not allege that Plaintiff was harassed because of her gender, but because of her complaints about HIPAA violations, and that the alleged discrimination was not related to Plaintiff’s gender, but to her personal privacy. This argument fails.

First, the Complaint alleges facts from which a reasonable jury could determine, if it found those facts to be true, that Plaintiff was harassed because of her gender. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that Dr. Wisoff, among other NYU employees, harassed Plaintiff repeatedly about, among other things, being a virgin, having gynecological problems and becoming pregnant.

Second, a reasonable jury could find that the harassment consisting of Plaintiff’s medical records being illegally accessed was also because of her gender. The medical records at issue were gynecological, and they included details about her sex life, or the lack thereof. It is clear from the allegations in the Complaint that the reason Plaintiff was so worried about her coworkers viewing her medical files was that they contained such personal details. The Complaint also alleges that one reason Ms. Blate, and possibly others, accessed these files was because they contained potentially salacious material having to do with Plaintiff’s sexual anatomy. In other words, had Plaintiff been a man having surgery to fix, for example, a broken leg, it is likely no one would have spied on the records and then spread rumors about what was in those records.

Third, the specific gender-based harassment is not divorced from the HIPAA violations. The allegations in the Complaint fall roughly into two categories: 1) those concerning Ms. Blate illegally entering Plaintiff’s medical records and NYU’s failure to handle this matter, and 2) other NYU employees, including Dr. Wisoff, harassing Plaintiff regarding her virginity, future sexual experiences, potential pregnancy and gynecological problems. However, these two branches of allegations are connected because, according to the Complaint, the confidential information about which Plaintiff was harassed became known to her co-workers due to the illegal viewing of her medical records.

Therefore, because all of the harassment alleged in the Complaint could be found by a reasonable jury to be because of Plaintiff’s gender, the Complaint sufficiently alleges conduct that a reasonable jury could find meets the severe and pervasive standard.

Plaintiff’s allegations were necessarily sufficient under the New York City Human Rights Law, which only requires a plaintiff to “plead facts showing simply that she was treated less well than other employees because of her gender”.

The court granted, however, defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s quid pro quo sexual harassment, age discrimination, ERISA, sexual orientation discrimination, and religious discrimination claims.