TRENTON – Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino announced today that a woman who resigned from her job in the face of persistent sexual harassment by her direct supervisor – who also owns the company that employed her – has been awarded a total of $57,920 for emotional distress and lost wages in a Final Decision issued by the Division on Civil Rights.
The Final Decision significantly increases the amount awarded to the victim – a single mother of three who worked for towing company Statewide Roadside Assistance of Toms River – after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) earlier this year. In an Initial Decision issued in June, the ALJ credited the woman’s allegations, but awarded only $7,500 for emotional distress and said the hearing record lacked sufficient detail to award lost wages.
Under Division on Civil Rights Director Craig T. Sashihara’s Final Decision, however, Statewide and its owner, Neal K. Prasad, must pay the ex-employee $50,000 for emotional distress, and must pay her another $7,920 in lost wages. In addition, the two Respondents must pay penalties and costs to the State totaling $52,350. The costs and penalties bring to approximately $110,000 the total amount Statewide and Prasad must pay.
“The conduct in this case goes straight to the core of the sexual harassment discussion taking place in every corner of our nation right now,” said Attorney General Porrino. “Upon reporting for work each day, this employee was put in a very difficult and stressful circumstance. She was economically dependent on her job for the sake of her children, and regularly harassed on that job – in the form of overtly sexual comments, inappropriately suggestive invitations and unwanted physical touching – by someone who held sway over both her hourly wage and her continued employment.”
“Let this case serve as a message to company owners and workplace supervisors throughout New Jersey,” Porrino said. “There simply is no place for the kind of abusive and sexually-harassing behavior that occurred in this work environment daily, and we will hold accountable any employer who engages in such conduct, or who tolerates it by others.”
The victim, who worked as a dispatcher for Statewide, was the focus of daily verbal and physical sexual harassment on the job that an Administrative Law Judge called so “severe and pervasive” that “no reasonable person” could be expected to tolerate it.
Among other things, company owner Prasad was accused of inappropriately rubbing his body against the woman’s body, inappropriately touching her, shouting obscenities at her and subjecting her to remarks that were “sexual and demeaning” in nature.
On one occasion, the victim testified, Prasad followed her into the Statewide facility garage and instructed her to “give the big guy a kiss.” When she refused, he kissed her on the cheek anyway. Prasad advised her on another occasion – when he observed that she seemed in a good mood – that had her demeanor not been pleasant, he would have bent her over the desk and spanked her.
The woman submitted her resignation in 2014 after approximately a year of employment. In a Complaint she subsequently filed with the Division on Civil Rights, she alleged not only hostile work environment but constructive discharge – workplace conditions so intolerable that an employee has no choice but to resign.
In significantly increasing the woman’s award for emotional distress beyond that awarded by the ALJ, Director Sashihara wrote that an increase to $50,000 was warranted given the “severity of the conduct,” prior awards for emotional distress made to other prevailing complainants in hostile work environment cases, and the impact of being harassed on the victim’s emotional state and family life.
Specifically, the Complainant testified that she was severely stressed but, as a single mother with three children, had no time to pursue counseling to help her cope with the stress. In addition, after quitting her employment at Statewide, she was unable to immediately find another job that provided comparable pay. As a result, she took a lower-paying job, and she and her children were subsequently evicted from their home and forced to live in temporary housing for a time.
According to a Finding of Probable Cause issued by the Division against Statewide and Prasad, the victim had a prior employment history with the company dating back to 2013 that factored into the harassment she endured before quitting in July 2014.
The woman was initially hired by Prasad in June 2013 at a wage of $10-per-hour, and subsequently had her pay increased to $12-per-hour. However, she separated from Statewide over “work-related issues” in early 2014.
She then worked briefly for a medical transportation company before returning to Statewide later in 2014 at a higher wage – $13-per-hour. She told the Division Prasad asked her to return. Prasad insisted she “begged” him to rehire her.
The woman said she understood that, working as a dispatcher for a towing company, some coarse language might be expected as part of the daily discourse. Upon her return to employment at Statewide, however, she said Prasad began to make overtly sexual comments and ask probing questions about her body part shaving habits, the sexual preferences of her and her co-workers, and the performance of their sexual partners. She said Prasad also made comments to her and a co-worker on more than one occasion about his wife’s sexual proclivities.
In one incident, the victim recalled, Prasad complained to her that she had an obligation to “give me something” because “I’m hiring you back with all this money.”
Prasad maintained during the Division’s investigation that the victim was not sexually harassed, but rather had resigned and concocted harassment allegations because she knew she was going to be fired for repeated lateness.
However, Statewide presented only a limited defense when the matter went to an administrative law hearing in January of this year. On the first day of that hearing, Statewide presented a single witness to counter the victim’s allegations – a male former Statewide mechanic.
At the outset of a second day of scheduled testimony, the attorney for Statewide called in claiming a medical emergency and the hearing was adjourned. Nearly a month later -- and after noting that all attempts to reach Statewide’s lawyer by telephone and e-mail had failed since the still-unexplained emergency medical adjournment – the ALJ closed the hearing record.
“Sadly, the victim in this case experienced a classic workplace exploitation scenario,” Attorney General Porrino said. “Her abuser was not only her immediate supervisor, but the company owner. To whom was she going to report his bad behavior? In the end she was dependent on her harasser for her livelihood, and therefore the quality of life of her family. Her decision to not tolerate such treatment and pursue a complaint was a courageous one, and we encourage other harassment victims to come forward as well.”