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When an Office Relationship Does — and Doesn’t — Constitute Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment Under New Jersey Law

While TV shows often are replete with office romances, the real world is frequently much more complicated. Relationships with coworkers can be filled with potential pitfalls, especially if the pursuer is someone with greater workplace power than the pursued. These situations too often aren’t entirely consensual but rather involve explicit or implicit promises/threats about the benefits of accepting or the harms of refusing. When that happens, you may have been the victim of illegal conduct, so you should discuss your situation with a knowledgeable New Jersey sexual harassment lawyer.

Certainly, members of the legal community should be well aware of the laws against sexual harassment in New Jersey but, regrettably, law offices throughout this state are not immune to instances of alleged sexual harassment, as Law360’s report about one recent East Brunswick sexual harassment case highlights.

The woman, M.B., was a paralegal for a male attorney from March 2019 to July 2022. During the paralegal’s second year of employment, she and the attorney engaged in a sexual relationship for four months. The relationship was entirely mutually consensual. The paralegal ended the affair in November 2020.

What ensued, according to the paralegal, was a series of acts that, if proven, would qualify as a “textbook” case of sexual harassment.

Shortly after the breakup, the attorney allegedly cut the paralegal’s hours from 40 per week to 15. The attorney also allegedly engaged in many other retaliatory actions as a result of the paralegal’s refusal to resume the sexual relationship. These included refusing to interact with the paralegal, even when she needed assistance or training, and implicitly threatening to publish the pictures and videos she had privately sent to him during the relationship, according to the complaint.

In 2022, the attorney allegedly took away M.B.’s office and moved her workstation to the reception area, making her the firm’s only paralegal without her own office. He also expressly told her that she could have her office back if she re-engaged in a sexual relationship with him, which she declined, according to the lawsuit.

One month later, the attorney fired the paralegal.

What Quid Pro Quo Harassment Looks Like

The actions this paralegal alleged in her complaint make for a fairly clear-cut case of what’s called “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is a situation where your employer, expressly or implicitly, makes one or more terms or conditions of your employment conditional upon your consenting to certain sex-related demands.

The nature of the affected conditions can be positive (i.e., “I can make sure you get that promotion if you sleep with me,”) or negative (i.e., “If you won’t go out with me, then I will fire you.”) Either of the above circumstances may constitute the foundation of a winning case of sexual harassment.

What About Engaging in a Consensual Relationship Where There Was No Quid Pro Quo?

Although power disparities often can lead to workplace sexual harassment, sometimes a relationship really is 100% voluntary, consensual, and welcomed by both parties. When that happens, the potential exists for the pursuer to become the target of wrongful punishment on the basis of sexual harassment. In that scenario, the pursuer who endured an adverse employment action may have a case of their own.

Several years ago, the Appellate Division court made it clear that “sex is not congruent with sexual misconduct” and that an intimate relationship — even one between a supervisor and a subordinate — isn’t sexual harassment as long as it is “consensual and welcomed” by both partners.

A byproduct of that decision is that firing someone (on the basis of sexual harassment) for engaging in a consensual sexual relationship with a subordinate may allow the fired employee to pursue a “Pierce claim” for wrongful termination. A “Pierce claim” — named for the 1980 New Jersey Supreme Court case of Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp. — recognizes a cause of action when an employer’s action violates a mandate of public policy.

One example of that was the case of a supervisor at an insurance company in Middlesex County who had a relationship with a subordinate. Both the supervisor and the subordinate clearly stated that the coupling was 100% mutually consensual and involved no threats or promises of workplace benefits. The employer investigated and found no evidence that either employee ever engaged in inappropriate conduct on the job. Nevertheless, the employer fired the supervisor for violating its sexual harassment policy. On these facts, the Superior Court allowed the fired employee to proceed on a case of wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

Too many times, a romantic or sexual pursuer uses their power in the workplace (either explicitly or implicitly) to extract the consent they desire. If you’ve been the victim of quid pro quo sexual harassment in the workplace, don’t suffer in silence. Instead, reach out to the skilled New Jersey sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates to provide you with the smart, zealous, and effective representation you need. 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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