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Holding Your New Jersey Employer Liable for the Sexual Harassment You Endured, Even if It Was Only One Incident

Sometimes, a hostile work environment case may involve dozens or hundreds of instances of sexual harassment. Other cases may involve an employer that blatantly turned a blind eye to the harassment and did nothing. (Still, others may involve both.) However, even if those things weren’t true in your case, you can sue and you potentially can still hold your employer liable, even if the harassment happened just once and your employer acted quickly in the harassment’s aftermath. To achieve that kind of legal success, start by getting in touch with a knowledgeable New Jersey hostile work environment lawyer.

The hostile work environment case of J.T., an office assistant at a drug counseling and treatment center in Monmouth County, makes for a good illustration. In March 2016, the clinic director organized a weekend outing to Atlantic City to celebrate the birthday of a coworker. During that trip, according to the assistant’s complaint, her supervisor supplied her with alcohol. J.T. eventually became sick and laid down, awakening later with her supervisor in bed with her.

According to the complaint, the supervisor raped J.T., as well as engaging in other oral and digital non-consensual acts with her. These acts occurred “throughout the night.” Allegedly, the supervisor boasted the next morning that he had “Cosby’d” the assistant, seemingly a clear indication that the supervisor had drugged J.T. to have sexual relations with her without her consent.

That was on Saturday. The following Tuesday, the assistant and the clinic director met regarding the events of that Saturday night. On Wednesday, the director contacted human resources via email about the incident. The following Monday, a human resources representative and J.T. met to discuss the attack. The next day, the center fired J.T.’s supervisor.

This employee’s experience, while undeniably horrific, potentially presents a complex legal case. The incident occurred outside of work. Human resources scheduled a meeting with J.T. within three business days of being contacted and, the day after that meeting, the alleged attacker was fired.

Some people might try to convince you that since this took place outside work, was a one-time incident and the employer took prompt action in firing the offender, you cannot possibly win a hostile work environment case. The federal trial court’s ruling in J.T.’s case shows that those people are wrong.

In denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the court concluded that the assistant could continue her case. Even though the assault occurred outside of work, the employer acted promptly to terminate the supervisor, and J.T. only had to work with that man one day after the attack occurred, those kinds of facts do not automatically get an employer off the hook, and make it free from potential liability.

Just One Incident May Be Enough if It Was Sufficiently Severe

The state Supreme Court has made it clear in the past that, although such cases are relatively rare, a single incident can create a hostile work environment if it was severe enough.

Clearly, what J.T. alleged constituted that level of severity. As the state’s Appellate Division court put it in a 2000 ruling, “if any single incident constitutes a rare and extreme case, it is when a supervisor rapes a subordinate.” Even if a victim only worked with their attacker for one day after the attack occurred, that is not fatal to the victim’s case. The key, instead, is the extent to which the assault “permeated” the victim’s post-attack experience at the workplace.

The cases this employer attempted to use to support its argument didn’t succeed. One case involved a harasser who engaged in inappropriate comments and inappropriate touching. That didn’t help the employer because the severity of the harassment was markedly different and, as noted above, when you are pursuing a hostile work environment case based on a single incident, proof of severity is crucial. While inappropriate comments and touching are undeniably unacceptable, they are just as clearly not as severe as a supervisor raping his subordinate, as “rape is surely the ultimate form of sexual harassment.”

Of course, proof of a severe instance of harassment isn’t all you need to succeed if you’re going to hold your employer liable, especially if that employer promptly fired your rapist. You also need to have evidence that shows that the employer was negligent or reckless and that this negligence or recklessness played a role in your assault. What you specifically need is proof that your employer knew or should have known about the problem (what’s called actual or constructive notice) but acted negligently or recklessly in addressing it.

In all of these essential areas, J.T. had sufficient proof to raise a legitimate dispute of fact, meaning that she was entitled to take her case before a jury.

Being sexually assaulted by your boss is arguably one of the most stressful work-related things an employee can undergo. If that has happened to you, don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to the knowledgeable New Jersey sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates to get the powerful advocacy you deserve. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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