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A Federal Judge in New Jersey Greenlights an ESU Officer’s Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Against Her Employer

Certain employment cultures place an outsized value on refusing to report misconduct by one’s colleagues to higher command or upper supervisors. Those that do report may be at extreme risk of becoming targets within these insular cultures. Law enforcement can be one of those workplaces. An officer who reports his/her fellow officers risks being tarred as a “rat.” This is especially problematic for female officers, as many of these police departments are also male-dominated workplaces prone to sexual harassment. If you’ve suffered sexual harassment in your police job, you owe it to yourself to contact an experienced New Jersey sexual harassment lawyer and find out what steps you can take.

A sexual harassment case from Hudson County allegedly involved a distinct example of this kind of workplace in action. The plaintiff, S.M., was a female officer with the Emergency Services Unit (ESU) of a local police department.

The harassment allegedly began when a lieutenant began stating that the officer’s direct supervisor was her “boyfriend.” According to the complaint, after  S.M.’s protestations, the lieutenant’s harassment only got worse. Other officers told S.M.that the lieutenant had also made comments to the supervisor, asserting that the lieutenant “hoped” S.M. was providing “real good” sexual favors.

On top of that, the lieutenant allegedly told officers that S.M. was having sex with yet another officer. Those comments begat rumors which, in turn, begat a lengthy barrage of questions from coworkers that caused S.M. “anxiety and humiliation.”

By June 2020, S.M. had reported the harassment and discrimination to a police captain and the captain forwarded the case to internal affairs. Even though the internal affairs process was supposed to have been confidential, it was soon widely known throughout the department, according to the lawsuit.

After that, the alleged harassment and retaliation continued to ramp up. Graffiti in the men’s bathroom labeled S.M. as a “rat.”Additionally, according to the complaint, S.M. “learned that a Fraternal Order of Police (“FOP”) representative was calling [S.M.] a ‘troublemaker’ and saying that her supervisors should stick together and retaliate against Martinez whenever possible.”

These allegations, according to the federal court for the District of New Jersey, formed the basis of a plausible case of sexual harassment and retaliation.

Just having a case may not necessarily get you where you need to be, though. Arriving at the outcome you deserve may mean having a viable claim against your employer, not just against the harasser. S.M. met that standard in her claims against the city, according to the court.

What You Need to Sue Your Employer For Vicarious Sexual Harassment Liability

To meet that burden you, as the sexually harassed worker, need to demonstrate five essential things. One, you have to show the harassment was “sex-based” or “gender-based.” Two, you have to prove that the harassment was “severe” or “pervasive.” Three, you have to establish that the harassment tangibly harmed you. Four, you have to prove that “the harassment would affect a reasonable person in [your] circumstances.” Last, you have to plead “facts that would support vicarious liability for the… employer.”

S.M. had all of these. The lieutenant’s vulgar and explicit comments about the rumored sexual relationship between S.M. and her supervisor were enough. Even without express proof that the lieutenant had a gender-based motivation for making the comments, that motivation could be inferred by the court because “the statements are sexually explicit and bear an obvious relation to gender.”

The complaint satisfied requirement #2 because the allegations demonstrated pervasiveness. The plaintiff alleged a deluge of rumors, crass comments, inappropriate speculation, and a continuous stream of questions from coworkers about her sex life that were fueled by the rumors and comments.

The anxiety and humiliation that S.M. alleged were enough to meet the third requirement. Given the harassment’s lengthy duration, the isolation it caused, and the tendency to make S.M. a target for retaliation, the fourth requirement was also satisfied by the woman’s pleadings.

Lastly and importantly, the court found that the allegations were sufficient to permit a claim against the city. The lieutenant was not S.M.’s supervisor, but “he still occupied ‘supervisor’ status. As a higher-ranking officer and desk supervisor, he had authority over her.” That was enough to make the lieutenant a “supervisor” for purposes of extending vicarious liability to the city.

Potential reprisals and retaliation because you spoke out against sexual harassment at work can be very intimidating. They should not, however, scare you into silence. You should not have to endure sexual harassment at work, regardless of where you work. Reach out to the knowledgeable New Jersey sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates to find out what you can do to protect yourself and your rights. We’ve helped countless harassed workers just like you and we’re ready to take on your case. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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