Sexual Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Constructive Discharge Claims Survive Summary Judgment Claims Survive Summary Judgment

In Long v. Aerotek, Inc. et al, No. 531638, 2022 N.Y. Slip Op. 00915, 2022 WL 398863 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept., Feb. 10, 2022), the court, inter alia, affirmed the denial of defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s sex-based hostile work environment claim asserted under the New York State Human Rights Law.

The court began by analyzing the issue of what acts that may – by virtue of the statute of limitations – be considered as part of the alleged hostile work environment, and then turned to an evaluation of the merits of the claim itself.

From the decision:

At the outset, we reject defendants’ contention that a sequence of events in early 2015 – in which LaRocca, plaintiff’s supervisor for much of that year, forcibly kissed plaintiff, repeatedly propositioned her and made a veiled threat to impede her career after she rejected his advances – could not be considered in assessing plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim because said conduct occurred beyond the statute of limitations for this action commenced in June 2018. Although plaintiff did not allege that LaRocca made sexual advances after the first part of 2015, she did describe a consistent pattern of sexist commentary and other behavior on his part that could be read as an effort to follow through on his threat to undermine her career if she rebuffed his sexual desires. By way of example, plaintiff claims that LaRocca routinely mocked her appearance, critiqued her makeup and clothing, suggested to her coworkers that they did not need to listen to her because it was her “time of the month” or because she was “emotional” and “bitchy,” went out of his way to “showcase[ ]” her absence from work events after she complained to Russo about the way she and her female coworkers were treated in June 2016, and claimed that he was too busy to meet with her when she asked to discuss business issues in 2017.2 Accordingly, although plaintiff concedes that a quid pro quo sexual harassment claim based upon LaRocca’s sexual advances would be time-barred, that conduct remains “relevant to events during the [subsequent] period” where LaRocca “swift[ly] transition[ed] from entreaty to retribution,” and it may be considered on what is indisputably a timely hostile work environment claim.

Turning to the claim itself, plaintiff articulated how she complained to Russo in June 2016 about comments made by LaRocca and male coworkers toward her and other women in the office, behavior that, like the other allegations made against him by plaintiff, LaRocca did not deny in the affidavit that he proffered in support of defendants’ summary judgment motion. Russo responded to that complaint by meeting separately with the women and the men in plaintiff’s office to discuss the issue, but plaintiff described how it became common knowledge that she had made the initial complaint and how that knowledge led to her coworkers ostracizing her. Plaintiff went on to relate how she was removed from a senior leadership team in early 2017 by Hawkins, by then her supervisor, and how she suspected that Hawkins had done so because of her gender after learning that her male coworkers had been “very upset” by her inclusion and believed that it had occurred because, among other things, she was a woman. In his affidavit supporting defendants’ summary judgment motion, Hawkins made minimal efforts to rebut plaintiff’s allegations that discrimination played a role in that removal, stating only that he allowed the leadership team to become inactive in early 2017 and, strangely, that he told plaintiff “to focus on growing her own business” when she subsequently asked about the team instead of telling her that it no longer existed. Plaintiff also detailed how Hawkins wanted to “talk [to her] about [her] feelings” when they met in the year prior to her October 2017 resignation – particularly after she became embroiled in a child custody dispute and he placed her, but not others with performance issues, on a PIP in July 2017 – and how he hindered her career by deterring her from pursuing business opportunities and not inviting her to coworker get-togethers such as golf outings. Plaintiff also described a conversation with one of her former supervisors that gave her some insight into the behavior of Hawkins, who admitted to the former supervisor that he did not “know how to handle” women and that he wanted plaintiff transferred to a different department so that he could avoid supervising her. Hawkins similarly made no effort to rebut those allegations in his affidavit.

In short, plaintiff’s descriptions of LaRocca’s behavior indicate that she was subjected to conduct that was first “physically threatening or humiliating” and consistently and “unreasonably interfered with [her] work performance” by undermining her with her colleagues. She further alleged how her efforts to address that behavior were ineffective and led to her isolation at work, while she was treated poorly by Hawkins because of her gender and status as a single mother. When all of this proof is viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, we are satisfied that “a reasonable person could find both that [plaintiff] subjectively perceived [the alleged] conduct as abusive and that [the alleged] conduct created an objectively hostile or abusive environment” so as to warrant a trial on her hostile work environment claim.

[Cleaned up.]

The court also held, inter alia, that there were sufficient facts warranting a trial on her claims of discrimination, retaliation, as well as against individual defendants (based either on their direct responsibility, or aiding and abetting of the allegedly wrongful conduct).

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