New York Taxpayers May Be on the Hook for Cuomo Harassment Suit Damages
(Bloomberg) -- New York taxpayers may get stuck with the bill if Governor Andrew Cuomo is sued for sexual harassment under state laws that were strengthened two years ago in response to the #MeToo movement.
Cuomo has been facing a political firestorm since New York Attorney General Letitia James on Tuesday released a bombshell report finding that he sexually harassed 11 women, with political figures from President Joe Biden on down calling for his resignation. Local prosecutors have also begun exploring criminal charges against the governor, and one woman filed a complaint against him on Friday with the Albany County sheriff.
Though Cuomo has not yet been sued by any of the women, James said on Tuesday that they could bring lawsuits. A lawyer for Lindsey Boylan, a former Cuomo aide who was the first woman to come forward with claims against the governor, said Thursday on “Good Morning America” that her client would be suing.
“There is no question that Lindsey was harassed, that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and that she was assaulted,” the lawyer, Jill Basinger, said.
Cuomo has denied all of the findings in James’s report and refused to step down.
Changes in the state law enacted in 2019 removed major obstacles to such suits, and James, whose office would typically defend the governor against civil claims, offered a clear roadmap for plaintiffs. But Cuomo is likely to argue that any liability falls on the state rather than himself, legal experts said.
It’s a situation similar to that faced by many corporations whose top executives have been accused of sexual harassment. Employment lawyer Miriam Clark said she wasn’t sure how personally liable Cuomo would be as governor, noting that the law was aimed at providing redress to workers rather than punishing their harasser.
“The question is complicated because the bill clearly applies to all employers and it’s clearly intended to apply to the state,” said Clark, who helped draft New York’s sexual harassment law.
Employment lawyer Kevin Mintzer said Cuomo would likely seek to have taxpayers pay for his legal defense as well as any verdict issued against him. Though the attorney general’s office usually defends suits against the state and officials, Mintzer said he would expect James to hire outside law firms to handle any claims over Cuomo’s misconduct.
Citing James’s report, a court could preclude the state from contesting the women’s allegations, Mintzer said, though other obstacles would remain. That’s where the 2019 changes would come into play, he said.
New York that year extended the time limit to bring workplace sexual harassment claims to three years from one. The state also removed the legal requirement that harassing conduct had to be “severe and pervasive” for a claim to succeed.
‘Severe and Pervasive’
“By ending the absurd legal standard that sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be ‘severe or pervasive’ and making it easier for workplace sexual harassment claims to be brought forward, we are sending a strong message that time is up on sexual harassment in the workplace and setting the standard of equality for women,” Cuomo said in a statement when he signed the changes into law in October 2019.
Mintzer said some of Cuomo’s misconduct detailed in James’s report probably would have met the old standard, but others of the women might not have been able to sue.
“They have that option now,” said Mintzer. “I think it’s very significant.”
Some of the women would still face obstacles. James’s report includes instances of harassment that took place as long ago as 2013 and 2015, well beyond even the extended statute of limitations. Mintzer said it’s also unclear if the time extension would apply to conduct that took place before the law changed.
And even the New York state senator who sponsored the 2019 sexual harassment legislation said she wasn’t sure the law could reach the governor personally. Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who was one of the first politicians to call for the Cuomo to resign after harassment allegations first surfaced, said it was possible a court could find the governor wasn’t actually the women’s employer.
That could be the case “even though he is obviously literally their employer,” Biaggi said.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.