In June, the New York State legislature significantly lowered the legal bar for employees to sue their employers if they have been subjected to sexual harassment or other forms of workplace discrimination. Previously, New York State law tracked federal law when it came to the standard for showing unlawful discrimination. Under Federal law, employees must plead and prove that they experienced harassment that was sufficiently “severe or pervasive” to alter their conditions of employment. Now, in New York, employees need only plead and prove that they received inferior treatment because of their membership in a protected class.

Federal law authorizes plaintiffs to bring sexual harassment actions against employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Interpreting Title VII, the Supreme Court held in Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986), that sexual harassment is actionable if it is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment. In Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993), the Supreme Court upheld the “severe or pervasive” standard and provided criteria for courts to use in evaluating claims, including: “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called the “severe or pervasive” standard “absurd” and has said that the legislation he signed is “sending a strong message that time is up on sexual harassment in the workplace and setting the standard of equality for women.”[1] The new legislation amends the New York State Human Rights Law to allow a member of any protected class to state a claim for discrimination if they can show that they were subjected to “inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of the individual’s membership” in a protected class, “regardless of whether such harassment would be considered severe or pervasive under precedent applied to harassment claims.” (s. 6577 § 2(h)).

The new standard will make it far easier for employees to pursue mistreatment in New York State, because they must now show only that their treatment was inferior, that it resulted from their membership in a protected class, and that it consisted of more than “petty slights or trivial inconveniences.” Id.

The legislation also authorizes actions against New York State and other governmental entities; bars employers from stating as an affirmative defense to harassment claims that plaintiffs failed to avail themselves of in-house programs intended to mitigate harassment in the company; extends the statute of limitations on filing claims from one to three years; prohibits non-disclosure agreements that bar employees from bringing court actions related to harassment; authorizes courts to grant punitive damages and attorneys’ fees in discrimination lawsuits; and invalidates mandatory arbitration clauses that pertain to harassment claims.