Your boss is insufferable – he yells at you and has temper tantrums during which he throws office supplies. Your coworkers are jerks, too – they’re mean to you, say nasty things behind your back, and undermine your authority. Can you sue your employer for a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment, under New Jersey law, doesn’t just mean that people are “hostile” in your workplace. It is actually a term of art that refers to a specific kind of bad work environment: one that amounts to discrimination.
A hostile work environment exists when an employee or group of employees is subject to an offensive, intimidating, abusive, or oppressive atmosphere because of a protected characteristic.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of an employee’s protected characteristics, such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability. The NJLAD also prohibits workplace harassment, creating a responsibility for employers to prevent workplace harassment, investigate reports and claims, and to quickly address and stop incidents of harassment. If an employer fails to meet these requirements or actively harasses one of its workers, the employer may create a hostile work environment under New Jersey law.
What kinds of things could constitute a hostile work environment?
Workplace discrimination is often takes the form of subtle conduct of an employer's supervisors or coworkers. There are several different ways in which a hostile work environment can develop, both from active harassment and in a retaliatory manner for opposing harassment. For example,
- A female employee has been constantly sexually harassed by a male supervisor and no longer feels comfortable at her job. The harassment has taken the form of lewd comments, suggestive remarks, catcalling, and suggestions that she got her job because she had a relationship with the boss. This could form the basis of a hostile work environment claim based on gender discrimination.
- A male employee stands up for her, and the supervisor begins assigning him undesirable shifts, calling him names, and making jokes about his relationships with women. This could constitute a hostile work environment created in retaliation for opposing gender-based harassment.
What should I do if I am being harassed?
In any instance of harassment, an employee should report the misconduct to superiors or human resources. If an employer fails to take action to fix the situation or retaliates against the reporting employee, the employee may have a claim for hostile work environment, and the employer may be held liable for its inaction or retaliation.
If reporting to the company doesn't resolve the issue, employees subjected to a hostile work environment have two options for exercising their rights under the NJLAD.
- File a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. This type of complaint must be filed within six months of the last instance of harassment. This time restriction is important, but often it is not an issue because a hostile work environment tends to be an ongoing problem once it begins. If the employee quits, however, his or her time to bring this type of claim may be limited.
- File a lawsuit in NJ Superior Court. Employees who choose to file a lawsuit instead of a complaint must do so within two years of the last instance of harassment. If a claim is not filed in time, an employee may forfeit her legal rights.
Each type of action has benefits and drawbacks. You should speak with an experienced attorney to determine which course of action is most appropriate to your situation.
How do I prove a hostile work environment claim?
Proving a hostile work environment case can be difficult. After a claimant proves that the conduct occurred, the fact finder (the NJ Department on Civil Rights, a judge, or a jury) determines whether or not the conduct occurred due to a protected characteristic and whether the harassment was so severe that it had an impact on the quality of the work environment, causing it to become intimidating, abusive, or hostile.
Recognized protected characteristics include race, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, marital status, pregnancy, perceived or actual sexual orientation, age, military status, veteran status, and disability.
If the victim proves that harassment occurred, the fact finder must evaluate whether the harasser was acting as an agent of the company, whether the company knew about or supported the harassment, and what the company did to prevent harassment. Such facts are relevant to whether it is appropriate to hold the employer responsible for the unlawful harassment (rather than blaming the individual harassing actors).
What remedies are available?
A successful hostile work environment claimant can recover several different types of damages. These remedies include injunctive relief, back pay, compensatory damages related to pain and suffering or emotional distress, punitive damages, interest on lost wages, and reasonable attorney’s fees. Monetary damages, such as lost wages, are almost always available, regardless of the severity or outrageousness of the harassment. Emotional distress and punitive damages are often more difficult to recover and usually require a claimant show that the harassment and hostile work environment were particularly egregious. Additionally, employers may be held liable for statutory fines of up to $50,000, depending on the specific circumstances of the hostile work environment claim.
If you believe that you have been subjected to a hostile work environment, you should seek help immediately. An experienced employment attorney can help you understand your case and take appropriate action. A dedicated attorney will fight for your rights, increase your chances of bringing a successful claim, and assist you in obtaining the justice you deserve.
To schedule an appointment with one of our experienced New Jersey employment lawyers at the Basking Ridge, Oradell, or Newark, New Jersey, law offices of the Mark Law Firm, contact the firm online or call 973-440-2311, 908-626-1001, or 201-787-9406 today.
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