First Department Appellate Court Reinforces Liberal Standard for Hostile Work Environment Claims Under the New York City Human Rights Law
Hernandez v. Kaisman, No. 104989/07 (1st Dep’t Dec. 27, 2012): A group of female plaintiffs alleged that the defendant, a doctor who owned and operated a medical office, created a sexually hostile work environment in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law (the State Law) and the New York City Human Rights Law (the City Law). Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendant sent them, as well as other male and female employees, a series of offensive emails, and made various sexually suggestive comments and gestures toward them, including remarks regarding their breast size. The lower court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion, holding that the defendant’s conduct could be considered equally offensive to male and female employees. On appeal, the First Department appellate court held that a jury could reasonably determine that the defendant sent the emails to provoke a reaction from women in the office, and that the plaintiffs were singled out from the male employees. Under the State Law, the court held that the plaintiffs’ evidence fell short of meeting the severe and pervasive standard required to state a claim. Under the City Law, however, questions of severity and pervasiveness are irrelevant to a determination of liability. The court thus found that the plaintiffs’ claim survived summary judgment because the comments and emails objectifying women’s bodies and exposing them to sexual ridicule, even if “isolated,” signaled that the defendant considered it appropriate to foster an office environment that degraded women. The court therefore reinstated the plaintiffs’ claim under the City Law. This decision demonstrates that courts will continue to analyze claims under the City Law separately and more liberally than claims brought under analogous state and federal laws.
Note: This article was published in the January 2013 issue of the New York eAuthority.