New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) bars many kinds of discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, and a recent lawsuit demonstrated just how robust its protections are. The case involved a female employee of a PNC Bank branch in New Jersey who was sexual harassed by one of the bank’s customers. Though the bank argued it could not be held responsible for the actions of a non-employee, the court disagreed, confirming the victim’s position that her employer had a responsibility to provide her and others with a safe work environment. The jury that heard the case ordered PNC bank to pay the employee $2.4 million in damages.

The case was filed by Damara Scott, an employee of PNC’s Glen Ridge, New Jersey branch. In October of 2013, customer Patrick Pignatello approached Ms. Scott in the vestibule outside of the bank’s entrance and sexually harassed her, pressing his crotch into her backside and rubbing against her. According to testimony provided in court, the 77-year-old Pignatello had long been a customer of the bank, and he had a history of groping and harassing both female customers and female employees. He had previously been banned from the premises, but only on a temporary basis. Ms. Scott, a wealth manager at the bank at the time, not only pressed criminal sexual contact charges with the police when the incident occurred, but also filed suit against her employer for a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, claiming that they had failed to protect her from unwelcome touching by a customer.

In response to her lawsuit, PNC filed a motion to have the case dismissed, arguing that she had no standing to file a NJLAD claim because Mr. Pignatello was not her boss. The bank unsuccessfully argued that making the company responsible for the actions of its customers represented “an attempt at a significant expansion of the protections afforded under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.” They claimed that the incident was unforeseeable, did not occur in the workplace, and was entirely outside of their control.

“This is critically important given that plaintiff’s narrow path to a recovery in this case is through the LAD, which, by its very definition, is a workplace protection statute so that individuals are not subject to unwarranted advances or conduct, within the workplace, by individuals who have power over them within the workplace,” the bank said in its motion. “Pignatello does not remotely fall into that category of individual,”

When their motion for summary judgment failed, PNC tried to argue the case using personal injury law, but Ms. Scott’s attorney focused the jury on the violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, which specifically applies to issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. The crux of the plaintiff’s argument was that employers have a duty to protect their employees from falling prey to this type of incident.

As part of that approach, Scott pointed to the previous bans that had been placed on Pignatello’s presence in the bank branch, as well as their refusal to close his accounts because of his holdings and potential for bringing in new clients. Ms. Scott’s attorney made a strong argument that employees have a right to expect protection in the workplace from other employees as well as from customers, saying, “All employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace, no matter who does the harassing.” They also provided evidence that the bank had previously provided protections for employees from customers, submitting evidence that another customer had their accounts closed based on having used profanity against an employee.

The bank denied knowledge of any previous incidents and pointed to their having provided sexual harassment training just months before the incident as proof of their dedication to preventing discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Upon questioning, however, it was determined that none of the employees in Ms. Scott’s branch had been provided that training, and the bank did not submit a sexual harassment policy into evidence to defend themselves.

The case was heard in Essex County before Superior Court Judge Robert Gardner. The jury listened to evidence over a three-week period, concluding that the assault had happened, that it represented harassment on the basis of gender as described under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, and that Ms. Scott’s employer was liable for the incident. They awarded her $300,000 in past lost wages, $500,000 in future lost wages, $800,000 for past emotional destress and the same amount for future emotional distress.

PNC indicated that it plans to appeal the decision, and issued a statement saying in part, “PNC does not condone harassment of any kind. We have a long-standing history of providing a safe workplace for our employees, and robust policies and procedures to help ensure that we continue to do so. We are disappointed by the verdict, even though the jury expressly found that this was not a case where punitive damages were appropriate. We intend to appeal based on errors made by the court.”

If you have been the victim of harassment or discrimination in the workplace, your rights may have been violated. For more information on whether you are eligible to file a claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, contact us today to set up a time to discuss your situation.