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A New York Lawsuit Again Puts a Spotlight on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the Fashion Industry

New York City is undeniably one of the primary centers of high fashion. Amidst the glamour and beauty is an uglier side, which is the sexual harassment and abuse that many workers in the industry endure. Many harassment victims are young and relatively naïve and inexperienced, while their harassers are wealthy, powerful, and very well-connected, making not just sexual harassment but also retaliation for opposing harassment ever-present risks. However, with an experienced New York City sexual harassment lawyer advocating for you, you have the potential to fight back, win, and hold your harasser accountable.

Sexual harassment and misconduct in the fashion industry have again been in the headlines recently. The spark for one recent round of stories of sexual misconduct was a Summer 2021 lawsuit filed here in New York. The plaintiff was model and actress Carré Sutton, who was known as Carré Otis in her earlier modeling days.

The woman’s lawsuit asserted that, Gerald Marie, the European head of the modeling agency that employed her sexually assaulted and raped her on repeated occasions. The agency head also allegedly trafficked her to other wealthy, powerful men, including an unnamed Italian billionaire, according to a New York Post report.


Regrettably, this kind of harassment and abuse within the fashion and modeling industry is not unique to the agency where Sutton worked. Many other models, following Sutton’s filing, divulged their own stories of workplace harassment and mistreatment in a New York Times report. Paulina Porizkova, a model famous for her appearances in the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” stated that models who were new to the industry “were taught to view ‘sexual harassment as a compliment.’”

Sexual Harassment Comes in Many Forms

The harrowing abuse Sutton allegedly endured is inexcusable. From it, though, models and others working in New York’s fashion industry can take several things. First, keep in mind that sexual harassment can take many different forms. There’s quid pro quo sexual harassment, which is where someone offers to give you something for sex (or take something away if you refuse their sexual demands.) “Sleep with me and I will make sure you get cover in a high fashion magazine” is one example, but so is “if you don’t sleep with me, I’ll make sure you never work in this industry again.”

Sexual harassment can also be things like unwelcome touching, inappropriate comments about your body or body parts, or lewd jokes told at your shoots or other job sites. These can amount to what’s called a “hostile work environment.” Historically, the law of sexual harassment when it came to a hostile work environment said that you had to prove that the harassment you endured was either severe or pervasive. For example, a worker who proved that one of her bosses at her modeling agency repeatedly sexually assaulted her would have evidence that very possibly would meet that “severe” prong.

Be aware that, while this “severe or pervasive” standard is still the rule under federal law, the standard in New York State and New York City is now different. Today, in New York State and New York City, you don’t have to prove that your harassment was severe or pervasive. You merely have to prove that you endured cognizable harassment. Once you do that, the burden of proof shifts to the defense to prove that the harassment you dealt with actually amounted to nothing more than “petty slights or trivial inconveniences.”

While this story addressed the sexual harassment of female workers by male harassers, the problem of sexual harassment in the fashion industry also extends to many male models as well. Regardless of your gender, and regardless of whether your harasser was the same sex or opposite sex as you, if you meet the legal criteria, you can bring and win a sexual harassment lawsuit. That can be true even if, for example, you and your harasser are both heterosexual men or if you are a female model and your harasser is a gay man.

Your Sexual Harassment Case May Also Be a Retaliation Case

Finally, many models who endure harassment hesitate to speak out due to fear of the repercussions of doing so. The risk of negative ramifications is very real. Sutton, for example, alleged that, after she fought back against her harasser, he reassigned her from Paris to Milan which, in the world of high fashion, would effectively be a demotion.

If you are demoted, reassigned to a less prestigious role, terminated, suspended, given a negative performance review, or given a reduction in pay (among other things,) you’ve encountered what’s called an “adverse employment action,” which means you have the basis for a retaliation claim. You do not have to win your underlying employment claim to win your retaliation claim. Even if your sexual harassment claim fails in its entirety, if you can prove that the adverse action was the result of your speaking out and that you acted in good faith when you opposed the alleged harassment, then you can win a retaliation claim.

The thoughtful and diligent New York City sexual harassment lawyers at Phillips & Associates can help you to hold accountable those who harassed you or who allowed it to occur and recover damages for the harm you suffered as a result of that sexual harassment. Contact us online or at (866) 229-9441 today to set up a free and confidential consultation and find out how we can help you.

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