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Mental health workers’ claims of unchecked harassment and sexual violence by prisoners will go to trial

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

They described sexual exhibitionism and genital exposure by Rikers Island prisoners, as well as spraying of bodily fluids, and claimed that their employer refused to implement suggested measures to protect them.

A federal district court in New York ruled that claims against a prison healthcare contractor by female workers, who described unchecked and “egregiously dangerous and harassing misconduct” by prisoners and supervisors, should proceed. There was evidence supporting the hostile work environment claims, including that the violent conduct was particularly directed towards women, as well as evidence supporting the defendant’s liability for the prisoners’ actions. The court denied the contractor’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ claims of hostile work environment and retaliation under the NYCHRL, as well as claims for unpaid wages and overtime under New York Labor Law (Thompson v. Corizon Health, Inc., January 12, 2021, Schofield, L.).

Mental health workers’ suit. In 2018, a group of mental health workers formerly employed by Corizon Health, Inc., a prison healthcare contractor that provided services to inmates at Rikers Island, filed suit against the contractor and others relating to mistreatment during their employment. They alleged that they were subject to repeated sexual harassment by inmates and supervisors and that the employer failed to take reasonable, appropriate measures to prevent it, while at the same time discouraging or ignoring their complaints. Two of the employees, in fact, alleged that they were retaliated against after complaining.

Sexual violence by inmates. Indeed, the employees contended they were routinely subjected to unwelcome gender-based conduct, including threats of sexual violence and rape; graphic comments; exposure of genitalia; acts of exhibitionism, such as masturbation; and spraying of bodily fluids, including semen, urine, and feces. The employees also contended that they were subjected to harassment by supervisors. For example, one employee testified that her clinical supervisor once grabbed her head and pushed it into his lap repeatedly, in a motion mimicking oral sex.

All of the plaintiffs stipulated to dismissal of their Title VII claims against their employer, Corizon, as well as claims against the City of New York and others were settled. One plaintiff settled all of her claims. In this motion, their employer sought summary judgment on the remaining plaintiffs’ claims of hostile work environment and retaliation under the NYCHRL, as well as plaintiffs’ NYLL claims. It was denied.

Gender-based conduct. After denying the motion with regards to a statute of limitations argument made by the employer, the court considered whether the employees had presented sufficient evidence to proceed with their NYCHRL hostile work environment claim. They did. The court noted that the parties did not dispute that the employee had routinely been subjected to a “variety of plainly unwelcome gender-based conduct” committed by the inmates. It determined that a reasonable juror could find that the conduct presented “severe health and safety issues” that far surpassed “tolerable workplace conditions.” Although the employer argued that the violence was gender-neutral, the employees presented evidence that “connects the gender-based misconduct that Plaintiffs complain of and workplace safety” and that the violent conduct was particularly directed towards women.

Imputable to the employer. Furthermore, the employees presented evidence that would allow a reasonable juror to impute the acts of the prisoners, who were third parties, to the employer. In this way, the court explained, the conduct was analogous to customer harassment. With regards to whether the employer had the ability to control inmate behavior, the court pointed to previous decisions holding prisoners liable for failing to take remedial measures in similar circumstances. “Although work with mentally ill inmates can be expected to involve some degree of unwelcome conduct,” the court explained, “employers are still required to take remedial action within their control to address known inmate misconduct, particularly the sort of egregiously dangerous and harassing misconduct at issue in this case.”

Employer’s inaction. The employer did not dispute that it was informed of instances of misconduct and the employees presented evidence that there were instances wherein the employer could have taken action to reduce harassment and increase safety. The employer could have implemented policies directly, they noted, or pressured the New York City Department of Corrections. In fact, they presented evidence that the employer prevented one of the plaintiffs from implementing some of her suggestions, including conducting clinical sessions with harassing inmates through plexiglass, ensuring the proximity of correctional officers, and maintaining aggressive patients separate from others. There was also evidence that the employer rejected one plaintiff’s proposed request to the DOC for additional escorts and failed to take action on another’s requests for policies to address the harassment. A reasonable jury could conclude that the employer could have taken action or implemented the proposed measures and that such action would have addressed the harm.

Retaliation. With regards to the employees’ claims of retaliation, which involved a variety of actions short of termination, the court concluded that those claims should proceed as well. It found unpersuasive the employer’s argument that it could not have reasonable understood the employees’ complaints to involve gender-based discrimination. A jury could also conclude that the retaliatory actions described by the employees, including micromanagement, transfer denials, more dangerous assignments, and increased performance criticism, would deter a worker from engaging in protected activity. Temporal proximity between their complaints and the retaliatory actions was sufficient, as well, to preclude summary judgment.

Finally, the court denied the motion for summary judgment on unpaid wage and overtime claims by some of the plaintiffs. Those claims were based on the fact that the employer automatically deducted 0.5 hours each day from the employees’ time records, for uncompensated lunchtime, even though there was evidence that their supervisors knew they were not taking lunch breaks.