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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
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Court Finds That Employees Are Protected From Retaliation When Complaining About Customer Sexual Harassment

Manager touching a female employee

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) protects employees from sexual harassment in the workplace.  Title VII protects employees from sexual harassment by co-employees, supervisors, managers, owners, clients and customers.  Under Title VII, employers are also prohibited from retaliating against employees when they complain about sexual harassment in the workplace.  Having represented victims of sexual harassment for more than 15 years, our Central Florida sexual harassment lawyers have learned that employers frequently are more concerned about not impairing their economic relationship with customers rather than protecting employees who endure sexual harassment from them.  Our Central Florida sexual harassment lawyers have also learned that employers, not wanting to alienate or risk losing customers, often punish employees who complain about sexual harassment from customers.    A recent decision by a New Jersey court of appeals in Prager v. Joyce Honda, Inc., 447 N.J. Super. 124 (App. Div. 2016) illustrates that employees are protected from retaliation when they complain about sexually harassing behavior from a customer.

Employer Wants To Protect Valuable Customer

In that case, Nicole Prager (Prager) claimed that she was compelled to resign her employment with Joyce Honda, Inc. (Joyce Honda) because of retaliation she endured after complaining about sexual harassment from a customer.  Prager, who was twenty years old, worked as a receptionist at Joyce Honda.  During her employment, a customer of the dealership leaned over the counter while Prager was on the phone and tugged at the sleeve of her off-the-shoulder shirt, exposing her bra. 

After Prager complained about the incident to a Service Manager, the Service Manager asked whether she wanted to press charges.  When she said she wasn’t sure, the Service Manager told Prager she had fifteen minutes to decide and sent her back to her desk.  When the Service Manager returned fifteen minutes later, Prager told him she did not know what to do.  Prager and the Service Manager then met with the dealership’s General Manager.

During the meeting, the General Manager and Service Manager discussed how many cars the customer bought and had serviced at the dealership.  The dealership considered the customer a valuable customer.  The customer had purchased about twenty cars over the years and came to the dealership about twice a month to have his cars serviced.  Prager testified that the General Manager told her that although she had the right to press charges, but it would be unfortunate for the dealership to lose such a valued customer.  The General Manager asked Prager whether she would prefer that he call the customer to reprimand him.  Prager testified that she left the meeting feeling that she “was allowed to make a complaint,” but that “they’d be disappointed if I made that complaint.”

Six days later, Prager sent an e-mail to the Vice President of the dealership.  In the e-mail, Prager notified the Vice President that she would press charges against the customer.  The next morning, the Vice President called Prager into a meeting with the General Manager.  During the meeting, the General Manager told Prager that she was acting immature and did not know how to handle the situation.  The meeting ended with the Vice President calling the police to report the incident with the customer.  The police interviewed Prager at the dealership.  Ultimately, the customer pled guilty to a petty disorderly offense of offensive touching and paid a fine. 

Prager testified that her work environment changed after she complained about the customer.  Prager felt that she was isolated at work and other employees refused to talk to her.  About one week after she complained about the customer, Prager was subjected to two written warnings for leaving work early without permission.  After the written warnings were issued, Prager attended another meeting with management.  During this meeting, Prager told the managers that the written warnings were retaliation against her for complaining about the customer.  Prager said that her “anxiety was high enough that [she] was throwing up before work.”  In response, the General Manager told Prager that if “the job makes her feel physically ill, it would be in her best interest most likely to resign.”  Shortly after the meeting, Prager resigned her employment.

Sexual Harassment Complaints About Customers Are Protected      

The trial court dismissed Prager’s retaliation claim before submitting the claim to a jury for resolution.  In dismissing Prager’s retaliation claim, the trial court concluded that Prager was not protected from retaliation when she complained to the police about sexual harassment from the customer.  The trial court reasoned that New Jersey retaliation law only protects employees who complain about sexual harassment from employees, not employees who complain about sexual harassment from customers.   

Although Prager’s retaliation claim was brought under New Jersey state law, the appellate court looked to federal case law interpreting Title VII in rejecting the trial court’s conclusion and finding that Prager was protected from retaliation when she complained to the police about sexual harassment from the customer.  In finding that the trial court erred as a matter of law, the appellate court specifically found that Prager’s “report to the police of an offensive touching in her workplace by a customer of her employer clearly constitutes protected activity” for purposes of New Jersey retaliation law and Title VII.    

Although the appellate court rejected the trial court’s conclusion that Prager was not protected from retaliation when complaining about sexual harassment from a customer, the appellate court nonetheless decided not to reinstate Prager’s retaliation claim.  The appellate court found that the two written warnings Prager received were insufficiently egregious to justify her resignation.  In other words, the appellate court reasoned that a reasonable person in Prager’s position would not have felt compelled to resign her employment because of two written warnings which did not inflict direct economic harm against Prager.    

Free Consultation With Ocala Sexual Harassment Attorneys   

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have extensive experience representing employees who have been sexually harassed by customers.  If you have experienced sexual harassment at work or have questions about sexual harassment from a customer, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Central Florida sexual harassment lawyers.  Our employee rights law firm takes sexual harassment cases on a contingency fee basis.  This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover. 

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