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Workplace Bullying—Is it illegal?

By Diane Williamson
Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

Are you being bullied at work?


Unfortunately, more often than not, the law will not offer protection or remedy if you find yourself in a toxic work environment resulting from bullying by your co-workers or managers. Indeed, there is no law against workplace bullying in New York, and, as court decisions indicate, the law does not create “a general civility code” for the workplace.


Nevertheless, there are some instances when workplace bullying may be illegal. The law may protect you if the bullying is targeted at you for a specific reason such as your race, gender, or other classification that is protected by the law. Under New York anti-discrimination law bullying is illegal if it is based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, veteran status, genetic makeup, disability, age, or sex, gender, sexual identity, familial status, marital status, and domestic violence victim status.


So, what might actionable bullying look like? Imagine an employee who is targeted because of her age or because she asked for a reasonable accommodation for a disability. Not all of the harassing behaviors need to make explicit reference to the protected characteristic in order for the bullying to count as discrimination. Also, a combination of bullying based on more than one of the protected categories counts as harassment. And the employee who complains about harassment need not be the intended recipient of the abusive communications—if the harassers are speaking derogatorily about someone else, those comments may still contribute to the hostility of the work environment. While the plaintiff must demonstrate that the harassment altered the terms and conditions of employment, the harassing behaviors might also take place outside of work—on social media, for example.


In 2019 New York updated its law that prohibits harassment to better prevent against all forms of discrimination at the workplace. Now New York law instructs courts to use a stricter standard. While courts should not consider “petty slights and offences” to be harassment, bullying that targets someone because of protected characteristics should be considered discrimination if it changes the terms and conditions of employment for the victim.


In addition to New York’s anti-discrimination laws, there are other laws that hypothetically could offer some relief for bullied employees. For example, bullying might be illegal if it is in retaliation for making a discrimination complaint, complaining about unsafe or illegal activity, making a wage and hour complaint, or because of lawful recreational or political activities conducted outside of work. Nevertheless, the law may be less likely to punish bullying for some these reasons.


If the bully’s behavior rises to the level of being “outrageous” and “intolerable in a civilized society,” you may have a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against the bully, or if you have been the victim of offensive touching or threatened touching, you may have a claim for civil battery or assault. If the workplace bullying causes stress that exceeds normal work stress and it causes you to be unable to work, you may also have a Workers’ Compensation claim. Of course, the only way to truly gauge whether your claim is likely to be successful is to speak with a lawyer.


If you are faced with regular bullying at work, it is a good idea to keep a record of your experiences. You will most likely forget the little details of the day-to-day harassment unless you write them down. If you send an email to yourself that recounts the events of the day (not on your work email), the record will also be time-stamped. It might be the case that you only come to realize later that the bullying is related to a protected characteristic. To be on the safe side, start documenting the bullying as soon as it starts on the chance that you may later realize that it is illegal. Plus, writing down the harassing behavior may help to delay your response and defuse a potentially volatile situation. Overall, take care of yourself and start applying for new jobs. Hopefully, a better situation is right around the corner.

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