At-Will Employee Stated Claim For Sexual Harassment and Breach of the Contractual Obligation of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

In Reynolds v. All Island Media, Inc., the New York Supreme Court, Suffolk County, held that plaintiff Leona Reynolds adequately stated claims arising from the alleged sexual harassment by her supervisor, Angelo Donofrio.

The court summarized plaintiff’s allegations as follows:

The amended complaint alleges, among other things, that plaintiff was sexually harassed by Donofrio throughout the term of her employment with All Island Media; that Donofrio ignored her requests to stop making offensive comments and lewd gestures; that she complained to [Human Resources employees] Locasio and Lloyd about such behavior; and that Locasio was dismissive of her complaints of sexual harassment, telling plaintiff that Donofrio just being friendly and that she “should not take his conduct personally.” It also alleges that certain actions by Donofrio led plaintiff to believe he would advance her career in exchange for sexual favors, and that Lloyd and Locasio engaged in offensive and abusive conduct towards plaintiff.

The court denied defendant’s motion seeking the dismissal of her first cause of action for a hostile work environment. Under the New York State Human Rights Law,

a hostile work environment exists “[w]hen the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult … that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment. Even a single incident of sexual harassment can create a hostile work environment if the alleged conduct is sufficiently severe. However, to hold an employer liable for a hostile work place caused by an employee’s discriminatory behavior, a plaintiff must establish that the employer became a party to such behavior by encouraging, condoning or approving it. Although calculated inaction to discriminatory conduct may indicate condonation, “only alter an employer knows or should have known of the improper conduct can it undertake or fail to undertake action which may be construed as condoning the improper conduct”.

Plaintiff met her pleading burden:

Here, the complaint contains allegations of repeated instances of improper sexual behavior and sexual comments directed at plaintiff by Donofrio. It further alleges plaintiff repeatedly advised Locasio, who works in the Human Resources Department, as well as Donofrio and Lloyd, who are supervisors at All Island Media, that Donofrio’s conduct was unwelcome, and that no action was taken in response to her complaints.

Next, the court dismissed plaintiff’s claim based on vicarious liability, finding that plaintiff’s complaint failed to “allege an intentional, deliberate act by All Island Media directed at causing harm to plaintiff, thereby placing her claim outside the ambit of the Workers’ Compensation Law.”

It also dismissed plaintiff’s cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, finding that “the alleged facts are insufficient to show extreme or outrageous conduct on the part of All Island Media, that such conduct was intended to cause plaintiff severe emotional distress, or that plaintiff suffered grievous mental distress due to such conduct.”

However, it denied defendants dismissal of plaintiff’s cause of action alleging that defendant “breached its contractual obligation of good faith and fair dealing.” It explained:

In every contract there is an implied obligation of good faith and fair dealing. As part of such duty, each party to the contract pledges not to “do anything which will have the effect of destroying or injuring the right of the other party to receive the fruits of the contract”. Thus, the obligation of good faith is breached when a party to a contract acts in manner that, while not expressly forbidden under the terms of the contract, would deprive the other party of the right to receive the benefits of the agreement.

Here, the court found that plaintiff adequately stated a claim under this theory:

[T]he Court finds the allegations that, among other things, plaintiff repeatedly advised Locasio about alleged acts of sexual harassment committed by Donofrio, that Locasio was dismissive of such complaints and failed to act on them, and that she consequently felt constrained to leave her job with All Island Media are sufficient to state a cause of action for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

(Note:  If this ruling is challenged, it will likely not survive appeal.  See, e.g., Hecht v. Nextel (SDNY 2012) (dismissing at-will employee’s good faith and fair dealing claim, since “well-settled New York law holds that no implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing attaches to at-will employment contracts.”).)

It dismissed plaintiff’s claims alleging negligent hiring or negligent retention, which required plaintiff to show “that the employer knew or should have known of the offending employee’s propensity to commit the conduct that caused the plaintiff’s injury.” Here:

[T]he bare, conclusory allegations in the amended complaint that All Island Media “knew of defendant Donofrio’s abusive and harassing conduct toward plaintiff,” and that it “ignor[ed] plaintiff’s complaints and the many complaints of others” about Donofrio, are insufficient to state such a cause of action. Furthermore, documentary evidence submitted by All Island Media in opposition to plaintiff’s cross motion disproves the allegation that Donofrio had been fired from previous positions for committing sexual harassment. As to the sixth cause of action, no allegations were made in the complaint that plaintiff was disabled during her employment and that she was discriminated against by All Island Media due to such disability.

Finally, the court dismissed plaintiff’s remaining claim for punitive damages, since “New York does not recognize an independent cause of action for punitive damages.”

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