The New York Daily News reported that former police officer Courtney Burns filed a lawsuit in Federal court in Manhattan alleging a superior “tormented” her during her three years at the 52nd precinct in the Bronx. Despite numerous complaints and attempts to stop the highly inappropriate behavior of her Sergeant, she was finally forced to quit her job when the retaliation became too much for her to handle.
The officer’s story is similar to that of thousands of employees who file administrative complaints and lawsuits each year alleging sex harassment in the workplace and retaliation. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination which is unlawful under federal, state and city laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, New York State and New York City Human Rights Law prohibit employment discrimination based on sex, race, age and many other protected characteristics. When an employer makes a decision because of one of them, it is unlawful discrimination.
Sex harassment occurs in one of two ways: quid pro quo harassment or hostile work environment. Quid pro quo occurs when someone with authority conditions an aspect of a subordinate’s employment on the performance of a sexual act. For example, your department manager tells you that if you sleep with him, he will give you a raise or if you don’t, you will say goodbye to your job.
A hostile work environment may exist when the conduct of any co-worker, not necessarily a superior, is unwanted and pervasive so that it makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Hostile work environments often result from the repeated telling of sexual jokes, unwanted physical touching, persistent sexual or romantic propositions, and threats.
It is also unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who complains about sexual harassment, whether the complaints are informal or formal. An employer may not take negative action against a worker trying to protect his or her rights under anti-discrimination laws. For instance, it may be unlawful retaliation for your supervisor to transfer you to another department into a job you have no experience doing because you complained that a member of your team is sexually harassing you.
According to the Daily News, Burns alleges that her Sergeant asked her inappropriately sexual questions and repeatedly groped her and touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable, including a non-consensual kiss at an office party. She claims in her lawsuit that her superiors at the precinct knew about his behavior and did nothing to help her put a stop to it. Burns said that she complained verbally but was afraid to put in a formal complaint. She told the Daily News that she was advised to keep quiet about it or things “would get worse.” Burns continued, “Everyone knew he was harassing me, he touched my thigh, rubbed my face, and then the kiss happened, and that’s when I think other supervisors noticed.”
Apparently, a friend of a co-worker called in the harassment to the City’s 311 complaint line which, according to Burns, spurred the retaliation leading to her resignation. Burns alleges that she was assigned work which required her to stand in a single spot with no break for 17 hours. She also claims that she was assigned to work highway duty with no partner, in violation of NYPD safety guidelines. The final straw came when someone told Burns that, after taking a few days off to mourn the death of a relative, she needed to get a psychiatric evaluation. The warning that she may find an ambulance at work waiting to take her for testing pushed her to resign.
Burns is asking for 54 million dollars in damages. Her claim for the sexual harassment and the retaliation may just prove to be significant enough to warrant such relief. Time will tell how the NYPD responds to the allegations and whether or not there can be a satisfactory resolution for the parties.
While this lawsuit, still in its initial stages, highlights some of the issues that arise in sexual harassment cases, by no means are they all the same. If you think you are the victim of unlawful employment discrimination or harassment, consult with an experienced attorney, who can evaluate the facts of your case and help you determine the best way to proceed. Leeds Brown Law, P.C. represents clients in New York City, Long Island, and the entire metropolitan area in sexual harassment and other employment rights cases. Contact us at 1-800-585-4658 24/7 to learn more.