Simple hearsay about harassment doesn’t create hostile environment

When Diane Leibovitz heard that two employees of the

New York City Transit Authority had been harassed, she claimed that made her a victim of a hostile environment and filed suit.

The reason: Leibovitz claimed that she developed a severe depressive order from hearing about her co-workers being harassed. The amazing thing: A jury bought it and Leibovitz was awarded almost $200,000.

But cooler heads prevailed. The appeals court threw out the award, saying Leibovitz didn't witness any harassment. Indeed, much of what she heard was second and third hand. She didn't even have the same supervisor as the alleged victims.

The harassment, the court said, "might as well have been going on in a nearby office of another firm, or been the subject of an infuriating newspaper article, or been a false rumor." (Leibovitz v. New York City Transit Authority, Nos. 98-7757 and 99-7313, 2nd Cir., 2001)

Advice: Although this employer eventually prevailed, don't shrug off the notion of "indirect harassment." Investigate all complaints of harassment, even if they originate from nonvictims.

Past cases have proved that people who aren't the direct victims of sexual harassment can sue and win. In one case, a worker who witnessed interoffice harassment complained to her boss, who advised her to keep quiet. She sued and won.

The key: To win, a worker/witness must show that her own working environment was hostile or that the harassment affected the terms and conditions of her own employment.