A Senate bill (S1823B), which the New York Senate Committee on Labor approved on March 15, would establish a private cause of action for an abusive work environment. This bill evolved after findings by the New York Legislature that 16 to 21 percent of employees directly experience health endangering workplace bullying, abuse and harassment, which has four times the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment. The purpose of the bill, which is presently awaiting a vote from the Senate, is to provide “legal redress for employees who have been harmed psychologically, physically or economically by being deliberately subjected to abusive work environments.”

Under this bill, abusive conduct is defined as “conduct, with malice, taken against an employee by an employer or another employee in the workplace, that a reasonable person would find to be hostile, offensive and unrelated to the employer’s legitimate business interests.” Examples of such conduct are repeated infliction of verbal abuse or gratuitous sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance. Single acts will not constitute abusive conduct, unless they are especially severe or egregious. An abusive work environment is defined as “a workplace in which an employee is subjected to abusive conduct that is so severe that it causes physical or psychological harm to such employee, and where such employee provides notice to the employer that such employee has been subjected to abusive conduct and such employer after receiving notice thereof, fails to eliminate the abusive conduct.” The bill also defines malice as “the intent to cause another person to suffer psychological, physical or economic harm, without legitimate cause or justification.” Retaliation against any employee who alleges a violation of the Act would be prohibited.

The remedies for violations may include: (1) injunctive relief; (2) reinstatement; (3) removal of the offending party from the plaintiff’s work environment; (4) reimbursement for lost wages and medical expenses; (5) compensation for emotional distress; (6) punitive damages; and (7) attorneys’ fees. If there is no negative employment decision (such as termination), the employer’s liability for damages for emotional distress are capped at $25,000, and punitive damages are not permitted. An employee would have one year from the last abusive conduct to bring this cause of action.

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