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Zakrzewska v. The New School

New York Court of Appeals

May 6, 2010

Dominika Zakrzewska, Respondent,
v.
The New School, Appellant, Kwang-Wen Pan, Defendant.

Thomas S. D'Antonio, for appellant.

Jason L. Solotaroff, for respondent.

National Employment Lawyers Association/New York Chapter et al.; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center et al.; New York University et al., amici curiae.

READ, J.:

In her second amended complaint, dated February 12, 2008, Dominika Zakrzewska brought a diversity suit against Kwang-Wen Pan and The New School in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, asserting claims for sexual harassment and retaliation under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), article 8 of the New York City Administrative Code. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has asked us whether "the affirmative defense to employer liability articulated in Faragher v City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998) and Burlington Industries, Inc. v Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998) appli[ies] to sexual harassment and retaliation claims under section 8-107 of the New York City Administrative Code" (Zakrzewska v The New School, 574 F.3d 24');">574 F.3d 24, 28 [2d Cir 2009]). For the reasons that follow, we answer this question in the negative.

I.

Zakrzewska enrolled as a freshman at the School in the fall of 2002, and worked part-time at the Print Output Center, located within the School's Academic Computing Center, beginning in April 2003. She alleges in her second amended complaint that Pan was her "immediate supervisor" at the Output Center; and that he subjected her to sexually harassing emails and conduct, beginning in January 2004 and continuing through May 2005, when she complained to School officials. She further claims that from August 2005 through 2006, Pan covertly monitored her Internet usage at work in retaliation for her accusation. [1]

On August 13, 2008, the School moved for summary judgment to dismiss Zakrzewska's complaint, arguing that it was not vicariously liable for Pan's alleged sexual harassment, and that Zakrzewska could not establish a prima facie case of retaliation. For purposes of ruling on the motion, the District Court assumed that Zakrzewska had shown that she was sexually harassed by Pan; and mentioned that "there [was] at least some evidence that Pan was a manager or supervisor" (Zakrzewska, 598 F.Supp 2d at 434), or, put another way, that "there [was] evidence from which a jury could conclude that Pan was a supervisory or managerial employee" (id. at 437).

The Judge then remarked that federal and state courts usually treat Title VII and local anti-discrimination laws as "substantially co-extensive" and therefore examine claims of employer liability for an employee's unlawful discriminatory acts under "the same analytical lens" (id. at 431). But here, the parties disagreed as to whether Title VII's Faragher-Ellerth defense to sexual harassment liability applied under the NYCHRL; and, if it did, whether the School had satisfied its requirements, or, alternatively, a genuine issue of material fact remained (id. at 432). As explained by the District Court, the Faragher-Ellerth defense provides that

"an employer is not liable under Title VII for sexual harassment committed by a supervisory employee if it sustains the burden of proving that (1) no tangible employment action such as discharge, demotion, or undesirable reassignment was taken as part of the alleged harassment, (2) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior, and (3) the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise" (id. [internal quotation marks omitted]).

Commenting that Faragher-Ellerth 's role in NYCHRL cases was "not free from doubt, " the Judge elected to consider first whether the School would be entitled to dismissal of the sexual harassment claim under Faragher-Ellerth (id. at 437). After reviewing the record, he concluded that the School was, indeed, "entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the sexual harassment claim, assuming that the Faragher-Ellerth defense applie[d] to [Zakrzewska's] NYCHRL claim" (id. at 434). Having resolved this issue in the School's favor, the Judge next examined whether the NYCHRL, in fact, makes the Faragher-Ellerth defense available to employers sued for sexual harassment.

Section 8-107 (1) (a) of the NYCHRL prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, and section 8-107 (13) (b) states that

"[a]n employer shall be liable for an unlawful discriminatory practice based upon the conduct of an employee or agent which is in violation of subdivision ...

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