By Nila Merola and Cameron A. Smith

Seyfarth Synopsis: Both houses of the New York State Legislature passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression and adds offenses motivated by gender identity or expression to the hate crimes statute.

On January 15, 2019, both the New York State Senate and Assembly passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (“GENDA” or the “Act”). Governor Cuomo is expected to sign the Act into law. GENDA’s effective date will be thirty days after Governor Cuomo signs the Act into law (except for the provisions amending the Penal Law and Criminal Procedure Law, which will not be effective until November 1, 2019).

GENDA adds Subdivision 35 to Section 292 to the Executive Law, which defines “gender identity or expression” to mean “a person’s actual or perceived identity, appearance, behavior, expression or other gender-related characteristic regardless of the sex assigned to that person at birth, including, but not limited to, the status of being transgender.” The Act also amends the State Executive Law, Civil Rights Law, and Education Law to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations, among others, based on gender identity or expression. GENDA also amends the State penal law and criminal procedure law to include certain offenses regarding gender identity or expression within the list of offenses subject to treatment as hate crimes.

Since 2008, GENDA has passed the Assembly 10 times, but has consistently failed in the Senate. In 2016, the New York State Division of Human Rights adopted new regulations that ban discrimination and harassment on the basis of gender identity, gender dysphoria, and transgender status, but GENDA now writes those regulations into law. With GENDA’s passage, New York State joins at least nineteen other states, the District of Columbia, and 157 cities and counties in the United States, including New York City, that have already passed gender-inclusive legislation.

This is a good time for all employers to review their existing anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies to ensure that they comply with both the New York City Human Rights Law and GENDA. Employers should also ensure that they incorporate gender identity, gender expression, and the status of being transgender into their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination trainings, and clarify that discrimination or harassment on those bases is unlawful.

The attorneys at Seyfarth Shaw LLP are available to provide any assistance with ensuring that you have robust anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies in place. We can also provide interactive anti-harassment training tailored to your company’s specific business and needs.

By John P. Phillips and Linda Schoonmaker

Seyfarth Synopsis: In recent months, sexual harassment has seized national headlines and raised significant questions about company policies, procedures, and culture. In response, many companies and HR personnel have questioned how to appropriately respond to complaints of sexual harassment. A recent decision out of the Western District of Wisconsin provides a helpful summary of the state of Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination and harassment law, and the appropriate company response to harassment. Given the national debate and this recent decision, now is a good time for employers to implement some best practices to (1) prevent harassment before it occurs and (2) take appropriate remedial action if it does.

Sexual harassment has been around for a long time, but recently it has garnered national headlines. Movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up have appropriately focused the spotlight on company policies and procedures. It is important for companies to continue to improve workplace culture and their responses to harassment when it does occur. At the same time, it is important for companies to understand the legal framework for a harassment claim, and their legal responsibilities.

A recent decision out of the Western District of Wisconsin provides an important reminder on the state of the federal law prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, and an employer’s responsibility to prevent and correct any harassing behavior.

Background on the Case

In Lee v. Dairyland Power Cooperative, the plaintiff alleged that several of her co-workers sexually harassed her, and that the company failed to take adequate steps to prevent the harassment. After an analysis of the applicable framework for sexual harassment under Title VII, the Court dismissed the plaintiff’s case, finding that she could not prevail on her harassment claim as a matter of law.

The facts of the case were largely undisputed and simple: on one occasion, the plaintiff overheard her immediate supervisor, a co-worker, and a security contractor—all male—discussing their desire for her to wear her “spring outfits.” They also compared her physically to another employee, who they described in a sexually suggestive manner; and they discussed the sex life of yet another employee. These facts were undisputed, and the plaintiff complained to Human Resources the same day. HR immediately investigated the incident and concluded that the sexually demeaning conversation had occurred.

The plaintiff’s supervisor personally apologized to the plaintiff and promised that the action would never happen again; that he would not engage in any further sexual harassment; and that he would protect the plaintiff from retaliation. The company asked the plaintiff to return to work, but she refused, believing the company’s response was inadequate. The company followed-up, explaining that there were no positions to which she could be transferred to be away from the supervisor. Feeling that the company had not fixed the situation, the plaintiff quit her employment. That same day, the company suspended the supervisor for two weeks without pay, and ordered him to attend retraining on the company’s sexual harassment policy.

Application of Title VII

The Court laid out the legal standard for maintaining a sexual harassment claim under Title VII (the federal law prohibiting harassment in the workplace): the plaintiff must prove that (1) she experienced unwelcome harassment, (2) the harassment was based on sex, (3) the harassment was so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of her employment and created a hostile or abusive environment, and (4) a basis exists for holding the employer liable. Here, it was undisputed that the plaintiff had experienced unwelcome harassment based on her sex. However, the Court found that she could not meet the third and fourth prongs of the test.

First, the Court found that overhearing the statements on only one occasion did not create an abusive working environment. Indeed, the Court applied Seventh Circuit precedent for the proposition that “verbal harassment limited to a one-time incident that was overheard, rather than intentionally inflicted, does not rise to the severe or pervasive standard under Title VII.”

Second, the Court found that the employer could not be held liable for the wholly inappropriate conduct of the supervisor. The company maintained an anti-harassment policy, which the supervisor violated. And as soon as the company learned that harassment had occurred, it initiated an investigation pursuant to its no harassment policy; and the company instituted discipline reasonably calculated to end the harassment. The Court found that the two-week suspension, apology, promise to protect the plaintiff from any harassment, and retraining on sexual harassment issues were sufficient for the company to meets its legal burden to resolve the problematic work environment. Accordingly, the company could not be held liable under Title VII.

Takeaways and Best Practices

When sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, nobody wins. And as the Dairyland Power case makes clear, even companies that have and enforce no harassment policies can face costly litigation. Given the current national debate over harassment, now is a good time for employers to review and reevaluate their sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Employers should consider several proactive steps—to help prevent sexual harassment on the front-end and then to appropriately handle the situation if it were to arise—including: (1) ensuring the company’s no harassment policy and reporting structure is up-to-date and clear; (2) providing harassment and employment law training to supervisors and managers; (3) taking all allegations and complaints of harassment in the workplace seriously; (4) immediately performing a thorough and complete investigation of any harassment complaints; and (5) implementing swift, appropriate, and proportional remedial action, including termination or suspension if necessary.

Above all, employers should strive to ensure that their company’s culture is one where sexual, or any other form of harassment, is simply not tolerated. Instead, each employee should enjoy a safe and respectful work environment, and feel empowered to raise any workplace harassment issue with his or her supervisor, manager, or HR. At the same time, the company should feel secure that taking proactive action on the front-end to eliminate any harassment before it occurs, and taking immediate action to stop and remedy any harassment after it occurs, is sufficient to satisfy its legal obligations under Title VII. Fortunately, the Dairyland Power decision continues to apply this legal standard.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

By Kristina M. Launey and Myra B. Villamor

Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs who pursued numerous web accessibility actions under Title III of the ADA are now using website accessibility to test the limits of a different area of law – employment law – California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Over the past few years, we have frequently written about the proliferation of demand letters and lawsuits alleging that a business denied a usually blind or vision-impaired individual access to its goods and services because the business’ website was not accessible, in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state laws.

One firm that pursued many web accessibility actions under Title III and California’s Unruh Act (including a success in the Bags N’ Baggage case decided in plaintiff’s favor by a California state court) is now going after employers. In recent demand letters and lawsuits, they are alleging that employment websites are not accessible to blind job seekers, in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), California’s corollary to Title I of the ADA.

While this blog, and Seyfarth’s Disability Access Team, are focused on disability access issues affecting places of public accommodation that provide goods and services to the general public (not employees, though many of our team members are employment specialists as well), this emerging litigation trend is worthy of our discussion here because it is an extension of the tsunami of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits pursued under Title III, involving the same technological and other issues, as well as the same plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys.  But there is one big difference – the legal standard that applies to employment disability discrimination claims is different from the standard applied to disability discrimination claims brought against public accommodations.

Title III is unique from other anti-discrimination statutes in that it requires (with exceptions) businesses take affirmative, proactive measures to ensure individuals with disabilities are afforded equal access to their goods and services. FEHA prohibits discrimination against individuals in employment.  It requires employers, upon notice that an employee or applicant for employment requires a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of his or her job, or to apply for employment, to engage in the interactive process to devise such a reasonable accommodation.  The employer does not need to provide the employee or applicant’s requested accommodation as long as the accommodation provided is effective.

In the cases filed thus far, such as those by Dominic Martin, Roy Rios, and Abelardo Martinez in Orange County and San Diego Superior Courts in California last week, the plaintiffs argue that they are blind residents of California who want to enter the workforce, attempted to apply using the defendant’s online application, but could not because it was inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. They claim the WAVE tool confirmed the website’s inaccessibility (an automated tool like WAVE, while useful, cannot be relied upon to determine whether a website is accessible or not, let alone useable by an individual with a disability).

In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs claim that they twice asked the defendant to remove the barriers and were ignored.  Plaintiffs also claim that removing the barriers would take only a few hours (which anyone who has worked in the website accessibility space knows is rarely if ever possible).  Plaintiffs allege these requests that defendant remove the barriers were requests for reasonable accommodation, though they were sent by the plaintiff’s attorney and not the actual individual seeking employment; thus possibly perceived as litigation demand letters rather than legitimate requests for reasonable accommodation.  The plaintiffs allege that the companies did not respond and that they have a policy to deny disabled individuals equal employment by refusing to remove the barriers on the website.  Each plaintiff alleges only a single legal claim for violation of FEHA, even expressly noting he is not asserting claims for violation of any federal law or regulation.

Will these claims find any success in the courts under the applicable law?  We will be watching.  In the meantime, businesses that have been focusing efforts on consumer-facing websites to mitigate risk under Title III should be aware of this new trend (if you have not already received such a letter).

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Disability Access Team.

Edited by: Minh N. Vu.