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How Your Can Win a Title VII Retaliation Claim Even if You Lost Your Underlying Discrimination or Sexual Harassment Claim

An experienced New Jersey hostile work environment lawyer has many tools in his/her litigation “tool bag” to help you seek justice. One of those techniques is taking all of the facts of your case, analyzing them with the utmost care, and then identifying all of the “causes of action” that you can use to seek compensation. That helps because, the more claims you have, the better your chances of success.

As an example of this, we can look out west to a recent hostile work environment case pursued under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. Sometimes, even court cases from outside our great state of New Jersey can be highly instructive to you, a New Jersey worker contemplating legal action in this state. That’s especially true if the employment law topics driving the case are federal law issues, such as Title VII cases.

In that recent case, the plaintiffs were seven women and one man who worked in an apparel company’s warehouse in Reno, Nevada. The defendant was their employer.

The accusations related to the music that the employer allowed managers and some employees to play at work. The music allegedly contained “sexually graphic and misogynistic” lyrics that discussed “violence toward women” and used “gendered expletives.”

In addition to the music, the employer allegedly allowed certain male employees, including some supervisors, to share pornographic videos, make sexually-oriented hand gestures and sexual remarks without repercussion.

The federal court hearing the case rejected the workers’ hostile work environment claim. They were unsuccessful because, for a worker to have a winning hostile work environment case, the worker must show that the alleged harassment was aimed at a worker or group of workers because of sex or gender. The mere use of sexually explicit and inappropriate words or gestures at work often isn’t the foundation of a winning hostile work environment case if it isn’t directed at anyone in particular; directing those words or gestures to someone (or a group of people) because of their sex/gender, on the other hand, may well be a violation of the law.

For some of these workers, the hostile work environment claim wasn’t the totality of their case, though. Two of the women asserted that they were subjected to mistreatment because they spoke up about the alleged hostile work environment. One of the two women specifically alleged that her supervisor subjected her to “excessive scrutiny” as a result of her having complained about the music and other misconduct.

Having a ‘Reasonable Belief’ and Engaging in ‘Protected Activity’ 

The employer attempted to argue that, because the workers had failed to assert a viable claim of sexual harassment, the law prohibited them from pursuing a Title VII retaliation claim.

That’s not how the law works. You need not win your underlying discrimination or harassment case to win your retaliation case. Any time you identify something that you reasonably think is harassment or discrimination and you speak up about it, you are engaging in what’s called a “protected activity.” Even if the alleged discrimination or harassment about which you complained turns out not to be a violation of Title VII, as long as you can show that you had a “reasonable belief” that the conduct was an “unlawful employment practice,” you still can have a viable retaliation claim.

All you need is proof that you had a reasonable belief, that you engaged in protected activity based on that reasonable belief, and that you suffered harm on the job because of your engaging in that protected activity. Harm can take the form of many different kinds of adverse actions. It could mean firing, demotion, suspension, reduction of hours, reduction of pay, negative performance reviews, or being targeted for extra performance assessments. In the case of these women, one alleged that she was made the subject of extra scrutiny, and both alleged that their work lives were made so intolerable that they were forced to quit, which is known as a “constructive discharge.”

As noted above, this case took place in Nevada, but it was a federal law dispute adjudicated in federal court. A federal court here in New Jersey would likely reach a similar result about Title VII retaliation, as Title VII’s protections against retaliation exist nationwide.

Additionally, here in the Garden State, the Law Against Discrimination also bars retaliation. The LAD’s anti-retaliation provision casts a wide net. Protected activity under the state law can include anything from speaking out against discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace to filing a discrimination or harassment complaint to testifying, assisting, or participating in a harassment or discrimination case or investigation.

As a worker, there are certain things to which you are entitled. You are entitled to a workplace free from sexual harassment and sex/gender discrimination. You are also free to speak out about things you reasonably believe constitute discrimination or harassment and do so without suffering workplace reprisals as a result. If you have incurred any of these injustices, you may be entitled to substantial relief. Get in touch with the knowledgeable New Jersey hostile work environment attorneys at Phillips & Associates to get the partner in seeking the justice that you need. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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