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Sexual Harassment in New York City: Lessons in Prevention and Protection from the Bouveng Litigation

October 6th, 2015 Christopher Davis

In the spring of 2013, 23-year-old Hanna Bouveng was a newly-minted New Yorker, having just moved to New York City from her native Sweden in search of internship opportunities. When she met Wall Street financier Benjamin Wey shortly after her arrival, she thought she’d found a unique opportunity to further her career. Wey’s billion-dollar private equity firm, the New York Global Group, was in need of a new director of corporate communications. Hanna took Wey up on his offer: the company would sponsor her work visa, and she would get an office in the Trump Building on Wall Street. She had no way of knowing that her new job would be a gateway into a months-long nightmare of intimidation, sexual harassment, and coercion.

At first, Hanna thought that Mr. Wey’s advances were the product of a cultural divide. But she couldn’t ignore his persistent and increasingly improper behavior. Wey would make public comments on her appearance, exert control over her schedule outside of work, and insist upon buying her clothes and jewelry—becoming angry when Hanna declined. Wey’s treatment of his employee went far beyond the realm of appropriate business culture, but by the time Hanna caught on, she was deeply reliant on Wey and feared retaliation. Not only was he an immensely powerful figure on Wall Street, he was now in control of Hanna’s finances and was capable of getting her visa revoked, uprooting her from New York City and the country. Hanna felt powerless in the face of Wey’s relentless sexual harassment, and as his advances became more and more blatant, she eventually succumbed to his pressure,

After many more months of abuse and harassment—during which Mr. Wey fired Hanna for insubordination and “violations of professional conduct,” attempting to publicly shame her and destroy her reputation in the process—Hanna filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in federal court. Her case was heard in June 2015, and the jury ruled in her favor on the charges of sexual harassment, retaliation, and defamation, awarding her $18 million in damages.

In an statement for Cosmopolitan, Hanna said, “I have learned that it’s okay to admit that you are vulnerable. It’s not OK for someone to prey on that. You shouldn’t feel ashamed when someone wrongs you. As women, we always tell ourselves that we have to appear tough and strong. But sometimes, we need to ask for help.”

Men can of course be the target of sexual harassment in the workplace, but women are most often the victims. Although cases like Hanna’s represent some of the most drastic forms that sexual harassment in the workplace can take, no amount of harassment is acceptable. Both employers and employees can take steps to ensure that workplace harassment is minimized, or, ideally, eradicated, within their workplace.

In New York City, employers are liable for sexual harassment committed by an employee even if management is unaware of the harassment. Under federal law, companies are only liable if the harassment is committed by a manager or if management otherwise knew or should have known about the harassment. Regardless, companies are responsible for providing workers with a safe work environment that is nondiscriminatory and harassment-free. If sexual harassment is observed or reported, employers are required by law to make tangible efforts to resolve the issue—however, it is in companies’ best interest to prevent harassment issues before they ever arise.

Anti-harassment policies are a useful tool for articulating the standards for a particular workplace. The development of a clear policy, which lays out specific behaviors that are prohibited and addresses procedural methods for employee complaints and dealing with violations, can be effective for dissuading unacceptable behaviors. Employers should make an effort to distribute the policy widely and ensure that it applies equally to employees at all levels of seniority.

In the event of a workplace harassment policy violation, employees should report the situation immediately, and employers should address the issue promptly and with the appropriate level of authoritative force. However, like Hanna, many victims of sexual harassment feel ashamed, powerless, and unmotivated to do anything about their situation. For this reason, victims of sexual harassment should seek necessary emotional support and legal advice as soon as possible.

Above all, employees should be aware of anti-harassment laws in the United States and New York State, so as to monitor their workplace’s compliance. It’s important for workers to discuss any concerns about the workplace environment with their employer or their Human Resources department, if applicable. If, however, your employer is not receptive to complaints about sexual harassment, seeking legal protection and support is particularly important given that it will likely not be provided by your employer. Also, under city, state, and federal law, an employer cannot retaliate against a worker who complains about harassment in the workplace, or who files a complaint or charge of discrimination. Common acts of retaliation following a complaint of discrimination include sudden, disproportionate, or unfair disciplinary action, shunning in the workplace, or termination under false pretenses.

Following Hanna Bouveng’s unfortunate case, employees in New York City and throughout the country should be aware that it is illegal for employers to make sexual advances towards employees, either explicitly or implicitly—and it is especially egregious for employers to make acquiescence a condition of keeping your job. Employers also cannot base other employment decisions (hours, payment, etc.) on employees’ reception to their advances, nor can they allow harassment by other members of the workplace. If a coworker’s behavior, in any way, interferes with your ability to do your job by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment, such a situation can be the subject of a claim under New York City, New York State, and federal law.

To file a complaint, workers in New York City, or outside of the city in New York State, can visit the closest regional office of the Division of Human Rights. For more information, please visit their website here. Workers in New York City can alternatively file with the New York City Commission on Human Rights here

If you believe that you have been the victim of sexual harassment, or would like more information or a free legal consultation, please contact the Law Office of Christopher Davis at (646) 430-7930, or fill out a consultation form from the home page of our website. As Ms. Bouveng would likely tell you, regardless of which path you may take, speaking confidentially with a lawyer is an important first step to finding peace of mind.