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Zakrzewska v. New School

May 6, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Read, J.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

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 US 775 (1998) and Burlington Industries, Inc. v Ellerth, 524 US 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 F3d 24, 28 [2d Cir 2009]). For the reasons that follow, we answer this question in the negative.


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.*fn1

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 one or two of this section only where: "(1) the employee or agent exercised managerial or supervisory responsibility; or "(2) the employer knew of the employee's or agent's discriminatory conduct, and acquiesced in such conduct or failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action; an employer shall be deemed to have knowledge of an employee's or agent's discriminatory conduct where that conduct was known by another employee or agent who exercised managerial or supervisory responsibility; or "(3) the employer should have known of the employee's or agent's discriminatory conduct and failed to exercise reasonable diligence to prevent such discriminatory conduct (NYC Admin Code § 8-107 [13] [b] [emphasis added]).

Based on this text, the District Court concluded that "the local law on its face appear[ed] to impose vicarious liability on an employer for discriminatory acts of (1) a manager or supervisor, without regard to whether the employer or another of its managers or supervisors knew or should have known of those acts, and (2) a co-worker, provided the employer, or manager or supervisor, knew of and acquiesced in, or should have known of, the co-worker's acts, among other circumstances" (Zakrzewska, 598 F Supp 2d at 434 [emphasis added]).

He pointed out, however, that because Faragher-Ellerth's relevance in NYCHRL cases was "an open question in [the] Circuit," he was obliged to decide "whether the New York courts would be likely to apply Faragher-Ellerth or to adopt a different interpretation of [section 8-107 (13) (b)]" (id. at 434-435).

Noting that New York, like most states, emphasizes fidelity to the text when interpreting a statute, the District Court concluded that "[h]ere, the plain language of Section 8-107, subd. 13 (b), is inconsistent with the defense crafted by the Supreme Court in Faragher and Ellerth. [This provision] creates vicarious liability for the acts of managerial and supervisory employees even where the employer has exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any discriminatory actions and even where the aggrieved employee unreasonably has failed to take advantage of employer-offered corrective opportunities . . . Given the lack of any substantial reason to believe that the New York Court of Appeals would not apply Section 8-107, subd. 13 (b), as it is written . . ., the Court holds that Faragher-Ellerth does not apply in NYCHRL cases" (id. at 435).

As for Zakrzewska's retaliation claim, the Judge first decided that there were disputed issues of material fact. Further, since retaliation is an unlawful discriminatory practice under the NYCHRL, he noted that the School would be vicariously liable for any retaliation by Pan by virtue of section 8-107 (13) (b), assuming that Faragher-Ellerth did not apply. The Judge therefore denied the School's motion for summary judgment dismissing Zakrzewska's complaint.

The District Court then certified an interlocutory appeal to the Second Circuit pursuant to 28 USC ยง 1292 (b) because he was of the opinion that Faragher-Ellerth's applicability under the NYCHRL was "a controlling question of law," as to which there was "substantial ground for difference of opinion . . . the resolution of which would materially advance the ultimate termination of this litigation" (id. at 437). The Judge observed that employment discrimination cases figured prominently in the district courts' dockets, and that "[t]he apparent tendency to press claims under the state and city anti-discrimination laws, either in lieu of or in addition to claims under federal statutes, create[d] a genuine need for resolution of vicarious liability standards applicable to employers under those statutes" (id.). He therefore asked the Circuit whether the Faragher-Ellerth defense applied to sexual harassment and retaliation claims ...

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