Hostile Work Environment

As its name implies, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) 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 LAD also prohibits workplace harassment. In fact, New Jersey courts have ruled that the LAD not only prohibits harassment, but that the law also creates a responsibility for employers to prevent workplace harassment, investigate reports and claims of workplace harassment, 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 have created a hostile work environment under New Jersey law.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a condition that exists when an employee or group of employees feel uncomfortable at work because of an offensive, intimidating, abusive, or oppressive atmosphere. There are several different ways in which a hostile work environment can develop. If, for instance, a female employee has been constantly harassed by a male supervisor, and she no longer feels comfortable at her job, a hostile work environment likely exists. Likewise, if a male employee stands up for her, and harassment then begins against him, the work environment may be hostile from his perspective as well. In any instance of harassment, an employee can report the misconduct to superiors. If no action is taken to fix the situation, or if retaliation is taken against the reporting employee, a hostile work environment may exist. Furthermore, the employer may be liable for this inaction or retaliation. Despite the fact that each of these situations involves a different set of circumstances, any of them may give rise to a valid hostile work environment claim.

What Protections Does the LAD Provide?

Regardless of what created the hostile work environment, the LAD protects and gives rights to employees who are subjected to a hostile work environment. The main right provided to a worker who has experienced a hostile work environment is the right to use the legal system to seek recovery. Employees subjected to a hostile work environment have two main options to exercise their rights. First, they may choose to file a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights. This type of complaint must be filed within six months of the harassment. This time restriction is important, but often it is not a 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. Employees who instead choose to file a lawsuit in court must do so within two years. If a claim is not filed in time, an employee may accidently forfeit her legal rights. In the event that a worker first files a claim with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, but later changes her mind, she can stop that action and file a lawsuit, as long as the Division has not yet rendered an official decision on the matter.

How is a Hostile Work Environment Claim Evaluated?

Generally speaking, hostile work environment suits filed with the court are heard by a jury. When a jury is evaluating a harassment claim based on a hostile work environment, the court will instruct them to determine the answer to three questions. First, the jury must decide whether or not the complained-of conduct actually occurred. This is often easy to prove by simple evidence or witness testimony. Next, the jury must determine whether or not the conduct actually constitutes harassment. To prove this element, the harassment victim must show that the conduct occurred due to a protected characteristic and that 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, pregnancy, perceived or actual sexual orientation, age, military status, veteran status, and disability. Finally, the jury must decide whether the employer should be held responsible for the unlawful harassment. Usually, this element is used to determine whether the victim is entitled to recovery for damages related to emotional distress or for punitive damages.

What Remedies Are Available?

If a hostile work environment claim succeeds, the plaintiff may be entitled to several different types of remedies. 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 showing 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 unfairly subjected to a hostile work environment or are still forced to work in an ongoing hostile work environment, you can get help. An experienced employment attorney who is aware of the laws, your rights, and how the legal system works can help you understand your situation and take appropriate action. Depending on your individual circumstances, different courses of action may be available. By obtaining the help of a dedicated attorney who will fight for your rights, you will not only increase your chances of bringing a successful claim, but you will also be able to obtain the justice you deserve.