I’m Being Harassed by my Supervisor. What Can I Do About it?
June 28, 2018
Lía Fiol-Matta, Esq., Ty Hyderally, Esq., and Tyiarah Adewakun
Your supervisor yells at you to the point where you feel intimidated, harassed, or threatened. This conduct has gotten so out of hand that you feel anxious, sleepless, depressed, or unable to work. You feel this mistreatment is wrong but you don’t know if there is anything you can do about it.
The laws are clear: it is unlawful for your employer to harass you because you belong to a protected class, i.e., a particular race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or creed or because of your age or disability status, among other factors. Unfortunately, the law is less protective if your employer is motivated by reasons other than your status as a member of a protected class, like that your boss is simply a bully. While no law specifically prohibits this conduct, in New Jersey your employer may be held liable if your employee handbook, manual, or code of conduct prohibits such bullying and harassment.
In Maselli v. Valley National Bancorp., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 334, a former bank employee brought a breach of contract claim against her former employer arguing that its failure to enforce the company’s anti-harassment provision contained in its Code of Conduct and Ethics caused her loss of employment. The policy prohibited workplace bullying. Despite this, the Bank took no action when Angela Maselli’s supervisor bullied and mistreated her throughout her employment. Maselli experienced harassment so severe that she had to take medical leave of absence and transfer to a different department when she returned from leave. Maselli then lost her job when her new department, but not her former unit, was downsized.
In response to Maselli’s lawsuit, the Bank filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the Code of Conduct contained a disclaimer which relieved them of any contractual obligations, including those in the anti-harassment provision. The trial court agreed, finding that the Code was not an enforceable contract.
On appeal, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, reversed the trial court’s ruling. It explained that the entire Code of Conduct did not cease to be a binding contract just because of the disclaimer, which stated:
“It should be noted that nothing contained in this Valley Code of Conduct and Ethics or in any policy or work rule of Valley shall constitute a contract of employment or a contract or agreement for a definite or specified term of employment.”
The Superior Court found the disclaimer to be ambiguous and susceptible to different interpretations. The Court explained that it was unclear as to whether the phrase “contract of employment” referred to a contract guaranteeing employment for a certain period of time or a contract to abide by the provisions contained in the Code of Conduct. The Court remanded the case back to the trial court so a jury could decide on the matter.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey previously ruled on the effectiveness of a disclaimer in an employee manual in Woolley v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc., 99 N.J. 284, 285 (1985), finding that disclaimers in employee handbooks must be “clear and prominent” in order to effectively eliminate contractual obligations.
The Court’s decision in Maselli ultimately suggests that an employer may be liable for workplace bullying by a supervisor if such conduct is prohibited by a company’s policy, handbook, or code of conduct. It is important to note, however, that a clear and prominent disclaimer might eliminate a company’s contractual duty to abide by its own policies. If you think you are being subjected to workplace bullying by a supervisor or manager that violates your company’s handbook or anti-harassment policy, you may want to consult an employment lawyer to discuss your rights.
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