NJ Supreme Court Explains Employer Liability for Harassment Charges
A case involving sexual harassment made it to the New Jersey Supreme Court, and its ruling emphasized that both employers and employees need to be proactive in both preventing and responding to harassment in the workplace.
The case involved Ilda Aguas, employed as a corrections officer at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. She filed the suit against the state of New Jersey, alleging that she was subjected to verbal and physical sexual assault, and for retaliation based on her complaints to supervisors about the abuse. The state argued that Aguas did not follow the proper procedure for reporting the abuse: DOC policy requires that she file a written complaint, and that bringing the issue up verbally with her superiors was not enough.
The NJ Supreme Court decided that a strong sexual harassment policy (and the complainer’s failure to follow said policy) counts as an affirmative defense for employers accused of sexual harassment. An affirmative defense is a fact or set of facts that, if proven true, absolves the defendants of claims brought against them.
What Does Aguas V. New Jersey Mean for Employers?
Employers should pay attention to the implications of this new ruling, since it had three key effects on New Jersey employment law:
- By classifying a sexual harassment policy as an affirmative defense, this means a company can deny liability if it can prove that it had a strong sexual harassment policy in place and took measures to educate supervisors about the best ways to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. This does not apply to certain extreme cases.
- Redefines “supervisor” as someone with the authority to “take or recommend employment actions” against the person filing the claim, or someone who directs the person filing the claim’s “day-to-day activities in the workplace”. This definition means that more employees may be classified as supervisors and will need extra training for preventing and responding to harassment.
- Those seeking punitive damages against those at-fault for sexual harassment must have show “clear and convincing evidence” that supervisors engaged in sexual harassment or did nothing to stop it. In this case, a written complaint from Aguas could have constituted “clear and convincing evidence”.
Stop Harassment Before it Starts
This ruling gives employers a strong incentive to adapt a thorough sexual harassment policy that clearly explains what the proper procedure is for reporting and responding to harassment claims. If all your supervisors know how to avoid committing harmful behavior at work, and employees know what to do if harassment occurs, employers can limit their liability against these types of claims.
To make sure your company’s policies adhere to the standards affirmed by this recent case, contact a New Jersey employment lawyer to review your policies and offer suggestions for fostering a safer, more successful workplace.