An Eye On New York Workplace Bullying Legislation

May 25, 2010

On May 12, 2010, the New York State Senate, in a 45-16 vote, passed a bill that would establish a civil cause of action for employees who are subjected to an "abusive work environment." (S.1823-B). This bill would permit employees who have been harmed psychologically, physically or economically by being deliberately subjected to an "abusive work environment" to sue their employers. Currently, no state has passed a workplace bullying law, but similar legislation has been introduced in at least 16 other states.

New York's workplace bullying bill contains a provision that would allow an employer to avoid liability if it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct the abusive conduct, essentially permitting a Farragher affirmative defense to such claims.

Although the idea of a civility law might seem reasonable at first blush, such legislation would almost certainly create a new wave of employment litigation against employers, at a time when most employers can least afford it. Given the amount of litigation that has occurred over what constitutes sexual harassment, it would appear to be a foregone conclusion that defining actionable "abusive conduct" under this legislation would result in similar widespread litigation.

New York's legislation defines "abusive conduct" to include "verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets ... that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating ... or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of an employee's work performance." The reality is that "derogatory remarks" are probably made in most workplaces. Indeed, some workplaces, like law firms, are notorious for having "yellers." Seemingly almost any employer might have exposure under this legislation.

New York's workplace bullying bill provides for broad remedies including punitive damages unless the employer is found to have caused or maintained an abusive work environment that did not result in a negative employment decision, in which case damages for emotional distress would be limited to $25,000 with no opportunity for punitive damages.

If the legislation is enacted, it would also essentially destroy any lingering notion that New York remains an employment at-will state. There is little doubt that plaintiff attorneys will be able to draft allegations that would easily meet the broad definition of abusive conduct. The legislation also provides for the recovery of attorneys' fees, thus, laying the groundwork for actions brought against employers for "nuisance" settlements by disgruntled employees. Bullying of any type, whether on the school ground or in the board room, should not be tolerated. However, employers have a right to question whether this type of legislation is necessary or warranted.

Employers who "look the other way" to known bullies in the workplace, particularly supervisors, could potentially face liability under various laws, including a negligent retention cause of action. Bullying in the form of verbal abuse that involves any type of protected characteristic could be actionable under existing discrimination laws.

Furthermore, employers would be wise to ensure they have implemented an appropriate workplace violence policy. Indeed, OSHA has issued a fact sheet on workplace violence suggesting that failure to take appropriate measures to prevent workplace violence may violate OSHA's general duty clause. Arguably, the general duty clause would also apply to severe and repeated verbal abuse.

Not surprisingly, there has already been strong opposition to the bill including from Mayor Bloomberg's administration. In addition, Susan John, the head of the Labor Committee of the State Assembly, where the bill is currently sitting, says it would create a disincentive for companies to relocate to New York and believes it may result in others leaving the state.

Whether the legislation eventually becomes law still remains to be seen, however, employers have a right to be concerned about the potential consequences of this landmark legislation.

A version of this post was previously published as an article in the May 24, 2010 edition of Law360.