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Hostile Work Environments in New Jersey: It’s Not Always About Slurs, Assaults, or Extreme Humiliation

Certain instances of workplace discrimination are fairly clear: a Black person who endures a daily deluge of racial epithets, a Muslim employee who hears a seemingly endless line of jihadi, terrorist, and bombing jokes, or an older worker who endures a regular torrent of “OK Boomer” comments. Other times, it’s not so obvious. In either type of situation, you may have a viable claim for a hostile work environment. Also in either circumstance, but especially in the latter, it pays to retain a knowledgeable New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer, who can help you make the most of your facts and demonstrate how they satisfy each of the elements of the law.

I.G. was someone whose alleged hostile work environment fell into the latter category. According to his complaint, he experienced a bout of vertigo in 2020, and as a result, the employer forced him to take a week of medical leave from his plant supervisor job.

After he returned, C.C., his supervisor, allegedly was “very cold and negative.” According to the lawsuit, the supervisor began making negative age-related comments about I.G. to other workers, including “it’s time for [I.G.] to retire.”

In the spring of 2021, C.C. received a promotion to vice president. Allegedly, around that same time, he removed some of I.G.’s responsibilities, giving some of them to a younger employee. According to the complaint, C.C. also “made ‘detrimental changes’ to [I.G.]’s work schedule.”

That August, I.G. took another week of medical leave, again to deal with his vertigo. He allegedly returned to a different schedule that forced him to cover multiple different shifts and sometimes work as long as 16 hours at a time. In early December, the vice president fired I.G. Later that day, the vice president promoted a younger worker to replace I.G., according to the lawsuit.

Throughout the period, the vice president allegedly made numerous comments about I.G.’s age to other employees, including things like “he’s old,” he’s “on his way out,” and he’s “not good for this job anymore.”

Proof of ‘Extreme’ Hostility Isn’t Necessary

While the allegations the plant supervisor laid out for the court were not extreme or severe, they were enough to defeat the employer’s request seeking dismissal of the case.

The judge’s ruling is a useful reminder about the height of the hurdle you must clear to avoid possible dismissal in your hostile work environment lawsuit. As the court explained, the employee’s assertions laid out a case indicating a “growing frustration from a supervisor based on Plaintiff’s age and/or absence from work that allegedly impacted Plaintiff’s hours and responsibilities. This is sufficient to plausibly plead hostile work environment claims.”

The ruling further reinforced that extreme harassment isn’t required for a hostile work environment case. I.G.’s employer argued unsuccessfully that the employee’s assertions couldn’t amount to a hostile work environment because he never alleged anything physically threatening or humiliating. The judge stated that, while physical threats and/or humiliation can be the foundation of a viable hostile work environment case, they are not a requirement for workers alleging the existence of a hostile work environment.

This employee-favorable decision is in line with previous rulings from the District of New Jersey. In July 2020, the court rejected a detox center’s request to dismiss a worker’s hostile work environment case. In that disability discrimination case, the employee alleged that she endured harassment every time she sought an accommodation or requested leave. This included “making [her] feel guilty about taking medical leave” and incurring discipline for disability-related tardiness.

That, the court ruled, was enough. “incidents of harassment are pervasive if they occur in concert or with regularity,” the judge stated. The detox center employee alleged that she discussed her medical conditions and/or took medical leave on “multiple occasions,” and that, each time, “her supervisors failed to accommodate her and/or reprimanded her.” Combined, the incidents were enough to qualify as more than “isolated” and make for a potential claim of a hostile work environment.

Certainly, getting cursed at, physically accosted, or roundly humiliated because of a protected characteristic are things that can make for a strong hostile work environment lawsuit. If your situation has none of those things, though, don’t make the mistake of assuming their absence automatically means you have no case. Instead, get knowledgeable advice from experienced legal professionals. The skilled New Jersey age discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help. Whether the discrimination you endured was severe and egregious or was more subtle yet pervasive, it may add up to a violation of state and/or federal law. Contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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