Sexual Harassment (Hostile Work Environment) Jury Verdict Upheld

In Reynolds v. State, No. 528410, 2020 N.Y. Slip Op. 00897, 2020 WL 572813 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept., Feb. 06, 2020), the court, inter alia, upheld a jury’s verdict on plaintiff’s hostile work environment (sexual harassment) claim under the New York State Human Rights Law.

From the decision:

We reject OPWDD’s argument that the verdict on the hostile work environment claims should have been set aside because it was not based on legally sufficient evidence and was contrary to the weight of the evidence because OPWDD did not know of Bezek’s harassing behavior. To the contrary, the evidence clearly supports the finding that OPWDD knew or should have known of Bezek’s harassing conduct and failed to take appropriate action. According to plaintiff, Bezek’s behavior started out with making inappropriate comments, followed by unwanted touching and requests for her to have sexual relations with him or expose her breasts to him. Bezek’s behavior escalated to unwanted touching, which included him grabbing her backside on several different occasions, trying to lift up her shirt, rubbing her shoulders, smelling her hair and pushing himself up against her. Plaintiff testified to an incident in which Bezek became sexually aroused, grabbed his erection and told plaintiff that she had caused his arousal. Although plaintiff acknowledged during cross-examination that she did not mention this incident or the incidents when Bezek attempted to lift up her shirt until trial, she explained that this was because the incidents were embarrassing and “very upsetting and traumatic.” Plaintiff recounted complaining to supervisors on multiple occasions about Bezek’s inappropriate comments and that they did not intervene on her behalf. She also filed a complaint with the director of Broome Developmental Center that Bezek was sexually harassing her. According to plaintiff, she was never asked to give details about either the words or actions that formed the basis of her sexual harassment claims or the derogatory names she was called. Plaintiff provided 10 pages of handwritten notes describing Bezek’s harassing behavior and the hostility she endured from coworkers.

*3 The testimony and trial evidence revealed that, after plaintiff made the complaints, Bezek was never moved to another unit or placed on administrative leave and, although plaintiff was eventually moved to a different unit, she was still “pulled” on a few occasions back to Bezek’s unit. A human resources supervisor (hereinafter the HR supervisor) testified that he met with plaintiff and Bezek during the investigation of plaintiff’s sexual harassment complaint and thereafter found the results of the investigation to be “inconclusive” based upon unresolved credibility determinations as to what had taken place. His report is devoid of any questions asked of plaintiff and any responses given by her regarding the specifics of her allegations during the investigation. The HR supervisor concluded that there were no witnesses to Bezek’s conduct toward plaintiff, but admitted that he took no investigative steps to determine if there were witnesses, and his report contains no indication that he contacted other supervisors or coworkers to see if plaintiff had reported Bezek’s sexual harassment to them. The HR supervisor conceded that plaintiff had reported that she had faced hostility and anger from her coworkers when she was transferred to different units ahead of more senior people. He acknowledged that some of plaintiff’s transfers were not permitted under the collective bargaining agreement, and that it was not until September 2009, after multiple transfers, that plaintiff was placed in an appropriate unit.

The court concluded, based on this, that “the evidence demonstrated that plaintiff suffered adverse employment actions and was discriminated against in the terms and conditions of her employment as a result of the sexually harassing conduct of Bezek and the hostile work environment to which she was subjected.”