Sexual Harassment, Mental Health, and Damages for Emotional Distress in New York City

May has been designated as “Mental Health Month” since 1949 by Mental Health America (MHA) and other organizations. The term “mental health” applies not only to diagnosed mental illnesses but also in a much broader sense to one’s emotional and psychological well-being. Twenty percent of the population will deal with mental illness at some point in their lives, according to MHA, but everyone must take care of their mental health. As New York City employment discrimination attorneys, we see the impact that acts like sexual harassment and discrimination can have on our clients. We see supervisors, managers, and others who abuse their authority, and employers who do little to stop it. Asserting one’s right to a workplace free of sexual harassment is often an important step in reclaiming control over one’s life. New York law provides remedies that can help restore a sense of justice.

Sexual Harassment as an Abuse of Power

Employment discrimination laws in New York City recognize sexual harassment as a type of unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves situations where an employee must submit to some sort of sexual demand as a condition of employment. This could be as overt as a manager demanding sexual activity in exchange for giving someone a job, but the demand could be anything of a sexual nature which the employee feels they cannot turn down.

Hostile work environment involves pervasive and unwelcome conduct that impedes a person’s ability to do their job. As with quid pro quo sexual harassment, it could be overt behavior like unwanted sexual contact or assault. It could also involve sexual jokes or banter. A hostile work environment claim usually involves a pattern of behavior that occurs over time, but a single incident could support a claim if it is egregious enough. An employee claiming a hostile work environment usually must show that the employer was aware of the conduct, but failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it.

Damages in Sexual Harassment Claims

Federal law allows plaintiffs to recover damages for “emotional pain, suffering…mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and other nonpecuniary losses.” 42 U.S.C. § 1981a. This can also include punitive damages. State and city employment statutes allow recovery of both compensatory and punitive damages. N.Y. Exec. L. §§ 297(4)(c)(iii), (4)(c)(iv), (9)N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-502(a). In an unpublished 2019 decision, for example, the Supreme Court of New York County affirmed a ruling by the New York City Commission on Human Rights awarding $200,000 in damages for emotional distress to an individual alleging sexual harassment.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

This is a common-law intentional tort claim in New York. A plaintiff must establish three elements:
1. The defendant engaged in outrageous or extreme behavior;
2. The defendant intended to cause severe emotional distress or trauma, or was reckless about the likelihood of severe emotional distress or trauma occurring; and
3. The behavior caused severe emotional distress or trauma.

In some situations, a person can assert a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress alongside a claim for sexual harassment. In 2017, for example, the Supreme Court in Kings County allowed such a claim to proceed to trial with a sexual harassment claim.

The employment discrimination lawyers at Phillips & Associates fight for the rights of New York City workers in claims for sexual harassment and other unlawful workplace practices. Please contact us online or at (866) 229-9441 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.

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