Under federal law, an employee who seeks to hold an employer liable for a hostile work environment, based upon sex, race, age, national origin, or other protected category, is generally required to show that the hostile work environment or harassment is “severe or pervasive.” Until recently, courts interpreting New York State and New York City anti-discrimination statutes have assumed that the standards for proving harassment under those laws were similar to federal law.
Recently, however, in Williams v. New York City Housing Authority, the First Department, Appellate Division, which embraces Manhattan, held that the New York City Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005 requires courts to view the protections offered by the New York City Human Rights Law more broadly than New York State or federal law.
In rejecting that an employee suing for sexual harassment under the New York City Human Rights Law is required to show that the complained-of conduct was “severe or pervasive,” the court in Williams held that the the New York City Human Rights Law “is now explicitly designed to be broader and more remedial” than New York State and federal anti-discrimination law. According to the decision in Williams, courts should focus on whether the employee was treated differently than others outside the employee’s protected category. Nevertheless, an employer will be able to avoid liability by proving that “the alleged discriminatory conduct. . . represent[s] no more than petty slights or trivial inconveniences.” This is a departure from the analysis used in deciding cases under New York State and federal law, which rarely shifts the burden to employers to prove anything.
The New York City Human Rights law is broader than its New York State and federal counterparts in many other respects. The Williams case reflects a departure from past decisions limiting the scope of the New York City Human Rights law, which will benefit individuals working in New York City.