Plaintiff Sufficiently Alleged Gender Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, and Retaliation Claims Under the New York City Human Rights Law

In Anderson v. Edmiston & Co., Inc., the Supreme Court, New York County recently held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged gender discrimination, sexual harassment/hostile work environment, and retaliation under the New York City Human Rights Law.

Plaintiff alleged that while employed by defendant company, her supervisor, Robert Shepherd, made various remarks implying “his disrespect for women and belief that they are not comparable to men in professional settings.”  For example, plaintiff alleged that he used the “C” word, in what he likely thought was a cleverly-disguised way.

Specifically:

Among these remarks were that if Anderson “messed up one more time” he was “going to spank [her].” He also told her [that] “[y]ou have to understand that this is a very sexist organization” and that he personally did not believe that women were suited for leadership roles. Id. Shepherd repeatedly called Anderson a “good girl” even after she requested he stop this behavior. He also openly told Anderson that he thought another woman employed at Edmiston was a “c___t”.

Shepherd also referred to a former assistant of his … as a “C-U-Next-Tuesday” and remarked to Anderson that [the assistant] was smart for using her sexuality to bolster her career, indicating to Anderson that Shepherd believed that this was the only way for women to advance themselves professionally. Shepherd regularly disparaged women around him with such terms as, “that f__king woman” or “that stupid woman” but did not respond similarly when frustrated with his male colleagues. Shepherd also made it clear that he valued a receptionist who was attractive over one who was professionally qualified and became enraged when he discovered that a receptionist that he had hired had a 3-year old daughter because he believed she would not be able to perform her job as a mother and said that she would not have been hired if he knew that she had a daughter.

While on a marketing conference call, on October 18, 2012, in which Anderson had to ask to be included, she was in Shepherd’s presence while he told another male individual that all of the women working in yacht charter are so “stupid” and “unable to make a deal” and that he (Shepherd) ends up doing all of their work and that the women should really all just “lie down and spread their legs for [him].”

This last incident was especially upsetting to Anderson who contacted Shepherd, first by email, to express her distress over his latest remark. Shepherd told Anderson that he was sorry for hurting her feelings but refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct, which only reaffirmed for Anderson his discriminatory beliefs.

Eventually, over lunch on November 1, 2012, Anderson told Shepherd that his blatant misogyny made for an impossible work environment. She requested that she be transferred to Edmiston’s London office. Shepherd responded to this request by telling Anderson that if she cannot handle the way he speaks then they should not work together and that she was “stupid” for thinking that the London office would be any better because they are “just as sexist, if not worse.”

Plaintiff alleged that, after advising plaintiff that there was no place for her in the London office, her employment was terminated.  (Defendant disputed that plaintiff was actually terminated.)

Noting the breadth of the NYC Human Rights Law, the court held that plaintiff adequately stated claims for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

With respect to plaintiff’s discrimination claim, the court held:

[F]ollowing the passage of the Restoration Act of 2005, the First Department held that as the City Council amended the law to be broader than its federal and state counterparts, a plaintiff pleading gender discrimination need only establish that “she has been treated less well because of her gender.” Under this standard, the first cause of action is sufficient to state a claim for discrimination based on gender which resulted in plaintiff’s termination.

As to plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim, the court noted that “the test is whether the harassment is of such quality or quantity that a reasonable employee would find the conditions of her employment altered for the worse.”

Plaintiff met this standard:

Taking the allegations in the complaint as true, Shepherd’s alleged actions and words, which were offensive, pervasive and derogatory and directed at plaintiff based on her gender, created a work environment that alienated Anderson and drove her to seek reassignment. When her reassignment could not be arranged events transpired that eventually led to her termination. Under these circumstances, it cannot be said that the events and remarks described in the constituted nothing more than, petty slights and trivial inconveniences. Moreover, at this early stage of the action, it is premature to determine whether plaintiff’s termination was motivated and caused by Shepherd’s reputed animus toward women, and the atmosphere of the defendant company as a whole.

Next, the court held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged retaliation:

[N]o challenged conduct may be deemed non-retaliatory before a determination that a jury could not reasonably conclude from the evidence that such conduct was, in the words of the statute, reasonably likely to deter a person from engaging in protected activity. Here, the allegations in the complaint are sufficient to allege that plaintiff suffered adverse employment action, including termination, based on her complaints about Shepherd’s sexist comments and discriminatory treatment of her based on her gender.

Finally, the court refused to dismiss plaintiff’s request for punitive damages. The NYC Human Rights Law permits recovery of such damages.  In addition:

[T]he allegations here, including that Edmiston knew about and tolerated Shepherd’s blatant sexual harassment and discriminatory conduct for years, and that Anderson’s complaints about such conduct resulted in Anderson’s termination are sufficient, at this early stage of the action, to support a request for punitive damages.

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