Plaintiff Successfully Pleads Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Under NYC Human Rights Law

The court’s decision in Garrigan v. Ruby Tuesday, 14-cv-155 (S.D.N.Y. May 22, 2014) illustrates the important distinctions between pleading employment discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the much broader New York City Human Rights Law.

Plaintiff claimed that she was harassed in the workplace because she would not resume a romantic relationship with her manager (Palmer). After she rejected Palmer’s advances, another manager (and named defendant), Edwards, began harassing her. She claims, for example, that Edwards spread “vicious rumors” about her and sent her “hateful text messages”, and that upon returning to work from the hospital, her coworkers treated her  “completely differently”. She complained to the HR director and to the general manager, but nothing happened. She ultimately resigned.

The court held that plaintiff stated claims for sexual harassment and retaliation under the NYCHRL.

Gender Discrimination / Sexual Harassment

Citing the First Department’s 2009 decision in Williams v. New York City Hous. Auth. and the Second Circuit’s 2013 decision in Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Cheuvreux N. Am., the court highlighted the important distinctions between sexual harassment under Title VII and the NYCHRL:

Despite the popular notion that “sex discrimination” and “sexual harassment” are two distinct things, it is, of course, the case that the latter is one species of sex-or gender-based discrimination. In the NYCHRL sexual harassment is governed by the provision of the law that proscribes imposing different terms, conditions and privileges of employment based, inter alia, on gender.

“Quid pro quo sexual harassment” and “hostile work environment” are two federal standards of liability that typically are applied to a sexual harassment claim, but they find no support in the NYCHRL. The [NYCHRL] does not require a connection between the discriminatory conduct and a materially adverse employment action, as the federal quid pro quo standard does, and does not require conduct severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms of … employment, as the federal hostile work environment standard does. … [T]he complained of discrimination need not result in an ultimate action with respect to employment … or in a materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of employment[]. Under the broad and remedial purposes of the NYCHRL, the focus is on unequal treatment based on gender regardless of the type of treatment. …

To establish a gender discrimination claim under the NYCHRL, the plaintiff need only demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that she has been treated less well than other employees because of her gender. Under this standard, the conduct’s severity and pervasiveness are relevant only to the issue of damages. To prevail on liability, the plaintiff need only show differential treatment-that she is treated less well-because of a discriminatory intent. Indeed, the challenged conduct need not even be tangible (like hiring or firing). (Emphasis added.)

The court refused to give collateral estoppel effect to a prior decision by SDNY Judge Daniels, in which the court dismissed plaintiff’s federal (Title VII) sexual harassment claims on the ground that plaintiff abandoned her hostile work environment claim and did not allege an “actionable quid pro quo.” It reasoned that “these federal law concepts are inapplicable here” and that Judge Daniels’ holdings “are not binding for an analysis of the NYCHRL because there is no ‘identity of issue,’ particularly given the explicit command by the Second Circuit and First Department to perform an independent analysis of the claims.”

Next, the court rejected defendant’s argument that “even under the more liberal NYCHRL, a failed romantic relationship cannot form the basis of a discrimination claim, because the resulting mistreatment was not based on gender but on the failed relationship.” To the contrary, “[d]ifferential treatment in the workplace based on gender is sufficient to state a claim under the NYCHRL” and “even if a previous relationship might suffice in some courts to render sexual harassment personal and not gender based under Title VII, it does not under the NYCHRL.”

Here, “[t]he Complaint’s allegations permit the reasonable inference that Defendant Edwards spread rumors about Plaintiff at work because she rejected her supervisor’s attempts to resume an intimate relationship.” While defendants may be able to show that Edwards’ actions amounted to only “petty slights” and “trivial inconveniences,” that was a “factual question and an affirmative defense” that could not be resolved at the pleading stage.


The court also held that plaintiff stated a claim for retaliation under the NYCHRL, reasoning:

Plaintiff “opposed” Mr. Palmer’s advances by rejecting them, and Mr. Edwards allegedly spread rumors about Plaintiff as a result. In addition, Plaintiff “opposed” Mr. Edwards’s behavior by complaining to her superiors about his mistreating her, but they took no corrective action, and another of her supervisors, Ms. Jones, further retaliated by spreading rumors about Plaintiff. Defendants’ course of conduct could be considered by a reasonable jury to have been likely to deter the Plaintiff from engaging in protected activity—namely, rejecting Mr. Palmer’s entreaties and complaining to management about Mr. Edwards’ conduct.

It rejected defendant’s argument that “rejecting sexual advances does not constitute protected activity for purposes of a retaliation claim”, noting that while that issue is debatable under Title VII, the Second Circuit has made it clear “that such opposition is sufficient to state a retaliation claim under the NYCHRL.”

Strict Liability For Managerial Employee Harassment

Finally, since alleged harasser Edwards was a managerial employee, Ruby Tuesday will be strictly liable for his conduct, under NYCHRL § 8–107(13), if plaintiff can prove her claims against Edwards.

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