Establishing a Sufficient ‘Causal Connection’ as Part of Your Retaliation Claim in New York

In a case of illegal retaliation, one of the crucial elements is something the law calls a “causal connection,” which is the linkage between the illegal conduct and the harmful employment action that followed. One powerful way to establish a causal connection is something called “temporal proximity,” which means closeness in time. To establish the sort of close temporal proximity needed for a proper causal connection, you need clear evidence that closely ties your punishment to your protected activity. When it comes to collecting this evidence and presenting the necessary arguments to the court, having an experienced New York retaliation lawyer on your side is essential.

A sexual harassment and retaliation case from Brooklyn is a clear illustration. J.E., the plaintiff, was a man who began working as a middle school teaching assistant in 2017. Later that year, S.L., a teacher at the school, allegedly began making unwanted sexual advances toward the assistant. The teacher made those advances repeatedly through the end of the school year, according to the assistant. The harassment allegedly included text messages like “We are hot white girls. You can’t handle us,” as well in-person harassment like calling the man her “Black lover.”

On May 10, 2018, the assistant reported the teacher’s harassment to the school principal. The principal allegedly did not believe him but did inform him of his right to file a claim with the Office of Equal Opportunity. The next day, the school suspended the assistant without pay and did not inform him of the basis for the suspension.

Eventually, the assistant learned that the alleged basis of the suspension was his “looking at a picture of a woman in a bathing suit on Instagram in the classroom and in front of students.” The suspension was problematic for a number of reasons. One, the assistant was part of a school field trip on the date in question and was not in the classroom at all that day. Two, he had a “privacy protector” on his phone that prevented others from seeking the content of the screen. Three, the school’s assistant principal allegedly stated that “in my twenty years of being an assistant principal, I have never seen someone be suspended without pay for something that had nothing to do with endangering a child, or an arrest.”

This, the court said, made out an ample case of retaliation under both the New York City Human Rights Law and the New York State Human Rights Law.

The teaching assistant’s evidence of a causal connection was very strong. His allegations presented a timeline where he complained about sexual harassment and was suspended the very next day. Initially, the reason for the suspension was not made known to the assistant and he did not find out for another 10 days.

When he did find out the reason, it was readily apparent that the alleged misconduct could not have happened due to the assistant’s participation in a field trip that day. Yet, the Department of Education upheld the suspension “even after the timing of his alleged misconduct had been inexplicably changed to a date that placed him in the classroom, as opposed to on a field trip, to match the allegations against him.” Furthermore, the department never punished — and, in fact, never even investigated — the teacher who allegedly harassed J.E.

A High Degree of Temporal Proximity

The court concluded that “it can readily be inferred that the ‘bogus claim’ against” the assistant was retaliation for his sexual harassment complaint to the principal. The temporal proximity between the sexual harassment complaint and the suspension (just one day) alone was enough to support the claim, the court stated.

In support of that conclusion, the court cited to previous cases where the Appellate Division court had decided that the workers stated viable claims for retaliation despite even less temporal proximity. In one instance, the court sided with an employee who alleged he was charged with departmental misconduct six months after complaining about discrimination.

…as Well as Additional Allegations Beyond Just Temporal Proximity 

Of course, J.E. had more than just temporal proximity to support his claim. He also pled other critical facts, such as the employer’s failure to investigate — or even acknowledge — the sexual harassment complaint, as well as the “unduly harsh” punishment he received for an “inconsequential misconduct charge” — a punishment normally reserved for circumstances where the employee endangered a student or was arrested.

When you have been harmed by discrimination or sexual harassment at work, you have the right to speak up, and you should not be punished for doing so. If you’ve been the victim of that sort of illegal punitive action, the skilled New York employment retaliation attorneys at Phillips & Associates are ready and equipped to help. We have many years of bringing — and winning — retaliation cases on behalf of workers just like you. To find out more, contact us online or at (866) 229-9441 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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