October 19, 2019

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October 17, 2019

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New York Employers Should Prepare for Big Changes Under Proposed Amendments to Human Rights Law

On June 19, 2019, the New York State Assembly and Senate passed legislation making sweeping changes to the New York Human Rights Law. The proposed amendments will make it far more difficult for employers to defend against harassment claims, as a result we are forecasting a significant increase in the number of complaints brought under the State law. Governor Cuomo had commented favorably on the bill and it is anticipated he will sign it into law. The full text of the proposed legislation is available here.

Employers should be aware of several key components of the proposed amendment. First, it expands the scope of conduct which would be actionable; second, it lowers the employee threshold for coverage; third, it eliminates an important defense to certain harassment claims; fourth, it lengthens the limitations period; and, fifth, it increases the scope of potential damages.

Currently, discriminatory harassment must be “severe or pervasive” to be actionable. In contrast, the new law more broadly redefines “harassment,” eliminating the “severe or pervasive” standard and rendering unlawful any conduct that rises above “the level of what a reasonable victim of discrimination with the same protected characteristics would consider petty slights or trivial inconveniences.”  As a practical matter, this standard will likely trigger jury trials in harassment cases involving all but the most innocuous of accusations.  This exceptionally broad definition applies to harassment based on all protected characteristics, i.e. age, race, creed, color, national origin, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, familial status, martials status, and domestic violence, as well as sexual harassment.

While formerly only employers with four or more employees were covered by the Human Rights Law, now all New York employers will be subject to the statute and the new watered-down standard.

In addition to easing the plaintiffs’ burden of proof, the legislation also deprives employers of what has been called the “Faragher-Ellerth” defense. Specifically, in Title VII cases employers could defend against some harassment claims by demonstrating that: (1) the employer took reasonable care to prevent and correct harassing behavior; and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of the employer’s preventive or corrective opportunities. However, with this new legislation, an employee’s failure to invoke her employer’s internal complaint procedure will not, of itself, shield the company from liability.

The amendment also extends the statute of limitations applicable to claims under the Human Rights Law: employees now have three years instead of one to bring claims of sexual harassment to the State Division of Human Rights or to a court.

Finally, the new law provides for potential recovery of punitive damages and requires courts to award reasonable attorneys’ fees to employees who successfully bring an employment discrimination claim. Employers who fend off an employee’s claim under the Human Rights Law may also be awarded attorneys’ fees, but only if the employer demonstrates the claim was “frivolous.”

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About this Author

Mary Gambardella Litigation lawyer Wiggin Dana
Partner

Mary brings decades of experience in helping clients comply with ever-changing labor laws and regulations, as well as in managing employment challenges such as sensitive terminations, sexual harassment, reductions in workforce, discrimination claims, and severance agreements. She is a proactive resource for clients seeking her counsel on a variety of human resource issues before they become a costly crisis, as well as a fierce advocate when crises arise.

Mary is Chair of the firm’s Labor, Employment and Benefits Department and regularly represents employers in...

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Lawrence Peikes Employment litigation lawyer Wiggin Dana
Partner

Larry represents the interests of management in all aspects of the employer-employee relationship and is particularly experienced in litigation defense. He has advocated for employers in a wide range of employment cases—before arbitrators, mediators, and government agencies as well as in state and federal courts. In a field where most attorneys rarely appear before a judge, let alone a jury, Larry has successfully tried cases on both the federal and state levels. Despite his extensive courtroom experience, Larry is first and foremost dedicated to finding the best, most pragmatic business solutions to personnel relations challenges, with an eye toward avoiding litigation.

Larry's practice encompasses the full range of employment law issues, including workplace discrimination, sexual and other forms of harassment, wrongful discharge, wage-and-hour compliance, non-competition agreements, trade secret protection, and contract negotiations. Larry represents employers in administrative proceedings before such agencies as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities; the New York State Division of Human Rights and its New York City counterpart; the National Labor Relations Board; the U.S., Connecticut, and New York Departments of Labor; and other administrative bodies charged to enforce federal and state labor laws.

When litigation proves unavoidable, Larry and his team of seasoned employment lawyers have an enviable record of success, disposing of lawsuits on motions, at trial, and by way of advantageous settlements. 

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Amanda Brahm Employment Attorney Wiggin and Dana
Associate

Amanda is an Associate in Wiggin and Dana's New Haven office.

Before joining Wiggin and Dana, Amanda was an intern in the Data Privacy and Security Department at the Office of the Attorney General in Hartford, as well as a summer associate at Wiggin and Dana.

Amanda received her J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law, where she served as the Senior Notes and Comments editor for the Wake Forest Journal of Business and Intellectual Property and received CALI Awards for Excellence in Conflicts of Law,...

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