What are the specifics of New York State’s new anti-sexual harassment policy laws? Marc Schneider, managing partner at Schneider Buchel, walks Habitat through the intricacies of the new laws.
New York State recently passed a new law requiring all employers, including condo and co-op boards, to adopt and distribute an anti-sexual-harassment policy. Can you explain the specifics?
The law requires every co-op and condo, regardless of how many employees it has, to have a written policy explaining what type of conduct is appropriate or inappropriate. Complaints can be filed with the NYS Human Rights Division, and a board can actually be held liable for the acts of its employees or employers.
How have you seen this issue play out?
I had a situation where a shareholder was claiming they had been sexually harassed by the superintendent. The co-op was notified of this recently, but the alleged sexual harassment was something that occurred years ago. The super had been at the co-op since it was created decades ago, and there had never been a single complaint about him, so the board was absolutely shocked when they received the letter.
What happened next?
We reviewed the letter of complaint and immediately contacted the shareholder, explaining that we wanted to learn the details. We also asked what kind of outcome they were looking for. Depending on the severity of the allegation, they might just want the board to talk to the person and ask them to stop the behavior. This was a little more than that. After initially trying to set up the meeting, we got a letter from an attorney on behalf of the shareholder.
This was serious.
We met with the complainant, their attorney and the property manager for what was basically a fact-finding mission. There were other people whose names were given to us, so we went to talk with them as well. Then we met with the superintendent, explained what the complaint was and asked if they knew the shareholder and whether they’d had any issues with them.
What was the result of the investigation?
The board came to the conclusion that there was no sexual harassment. The fact that it allegedly happened years ago, of course, made it difficult to prove. Also, under the new law there’s a strict statute of limitations. Even if sexual harassment had actually occurred, there'd would have been no legal grounds for the complainant since so much time had passed.
In these cases, once a board makes its decision, does that settle the matter?
The shareholder can file a complaint with the Division of Human Rights. But if a board has fulfilled its duty by investigating the complaint promptly, letting both parties know about its findings and keeping records of them, they will have complied with the law.
So boards need to know exactly what the law requires so that they are prepared when a complaint occurs.
These discrimination complaints come pretty frequently and readily. The majority of the ones that our office has handled have turned out not to be valid. Still, it’s important that boards make sure they are in compliance with the law. In addition to adopting and distributing an anti-harassment policy, employees have to receive training once a year. Our offices have provided training for many of our co-ops’ employees.
Does the board need training as well?
No, just employees. By the way, boards should also be aware that the reverse situation could happen. An employee could be harassed by a contractor, vendor or even a shareholder. If that happens, you need to take action and have your employee contact law enforcement.