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How You May Have Been a Participant in a Consensual Office Affair and also a Victim of Sexual Harassment

Workplaces are dynamic and complex places. Coworkers may work with one another, argue with one another, and… sometimes… fall in love with one another. Office romances can be complicated and, even if they are mutually consensual, they still can have sexual harassment interwoven into them. If you’ve found yourself embroiled in a situation like that, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you cannot possibly win a sexual harassment case. Instead, get in touch with a New Jersey sexual harassment lawyer and find out what your options really are.

A recent sexual harassment case from here in North Jersey is an example of what we mean.

K.B. was an administrative worker at a hospital in Bergen County. In 2016, the employer promoted her to office manager and assigned her to work for A.H., a doctor of internal medicine. The manager and the doctor engaged in a mutually consensual romantic affair.

The manager’s husband eventually discovered the adultery and reported the affair to the hospital’s president and CEO. Because the hospital had a rule barring relationships/dating between coworkers who worked inside the same department, the employer eventually relocated the office manager to a new department.

The relationship ended in August 2016. The employer fired K.B. on Sept. 9, purportedly for misconduct unrelated to the affair. Subsequently, the manager sued, alleging sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.

New Jersey and federal law have made it clear that even if sexual interactions were consensual (in the sense that the victim “was not forced to participate against her will”), they still can be the basis of a winning sexual harassment claim under Title VII if the advances were “unwelcome.” However, a relationship’s consensual nature automatically “negates the elements of” a hostile work environment claim.

While this employee lost her case because of certain specifics tied to the nature of her claims and the exact nature of the relationship she had with the doctor, it’s important to keep in mind that a consensual relationship can still sometimes be the foundation of a successful lawsuit. For example, if you decide you want to end the affair but you ultimately stay in the relationship because your partner has threatened to harm you professionally if you leave, then that could possibly constitute a form of actionable quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Alternately, say that you engaged in an affair with a coworker and then you ended the relationship, indicating that you wanted your relationship going forward to be strictly professional. In that scenario, romantic propositions and sexual comments and messages by your ex-partner in the days, weeks, and months after the relationship’s end could amount to proof of a viable sexual harassment claim.

Additionally, if you end a mutually consensual and welcome relationship and your ex-partner takes action that adversely affects you at work, then they — and your employer — possibly could be liable for sexual harassment, even if your ex-partner never made any post-breakup inappropriate comments or advances, or otherwise sought to resume the relationship with you.

An Interoffice Romance is Not Automatically Illegal Sexual Harassment

Sometimes, though, neither you nor your partner did anything illegal, but you still suffer adverse action at work as a result of the relationship. When that happens, you may have a different avenue of legal action available to you. New Jersey law is clear that consensual and mutually welcomed sexual relationships between coworkers do not automatically constitute sexual harassment.

So, if your employer fires, demotes, suspends, or otherwise punishes you for an office romance that both parties desired and welcomed — on the basis that you engaged in sexual harassment — then you may have a case of wrongful termination. As the Appellate Division court explained, it “is established that an employer violates clear public policy by firing an employee for alleged sexual harassment based on employee’s consensual romantic relationship with a coworker. Such a wrongful discharge is a violation of the clear mandate of New Jersey public policy.”

Workplace sexual harassment can come in many forms and types. Sometimes, it even can happen in connection with a consensual relationship between two coworkers. Regardless of the particulars, if you think you have been the victim of workplace sexual harassment, you owe it to yourself to speak to legal counsel. The knowledgeable New Jersey sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help. We’ve aided countless New Jersey workers to navigate the sensitive world of sexual harassment claims and would be eager to discuss the options that exist for you. To find out more, contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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