If sexist comments are made in a workplace, but no woman is around to hear it, is it still discrimination? According to a landmark decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court, the answer is: yup.
Typically, under workplace discrimination law, it's the target of gross remarks who files a lawsuit. But United Parcel Service manager Michael Battaglia, 56, (pictured) was disturbed by the lewd remarks another male employee made about women, so complained, repeatedly. Battaglia also complained that managers were misusing corporate credit cards. He was subsequently demoted, and then sued for retaliation. On Wednesday, the court unanimously sided with Battaglia, and awarded him half a million dollars for economic damages. He could get even more. Damages for emotional distress are to be decided by a jury.
Battaglia says his boss, Wayne DeCraine, would make offensive sexual comments about female employees in all-male meetings, an allegation that DeCraine consistently denied. UPS also denied all wrong-doing. (The specific comments aren't disclosed in the suit.)
Battaglia, who's now been with UPS for 28 years, says he complained to DeCraine and other managers, but received no response. So he wrote an anonymous letter to the corporate office, complaining of that, as well as credit card abuse and other actions that he thought violated company policies. Soon after, Battaglia, who says he was a top performer in the district, was demoted for allegedly leaking information to another employee. He claims his superiors were trying to find a reason to demote him, and actually hired a private investigator to hack into his phone records, and find evidence he'd spoken to that worker.
Battaglia sued under the state's law that bans workplace discrimination based on things like gender, religion, and race. In 2009, a jury decided with Battaglia, and awarded him a million dollars -- half for economic damages, and half for emotional distress. The defendant appealed, and the next court had a much stricter idea of what discrimination meant.
"They said our client, who is a man, was not protected for discrimination under the law for complaining about disgusting, vile, sexual comments made against women in the workplace," explains his attorney Maureen Binetti, "because no woman heard them and no woman was actually discriminated against."
The case winded its way to the state supreme court. Through this time -- eight years in total -- Battaglia stayed working at his lower position at UPS, sometimes embarrassed at how far he'd fallen, and frustrated that his boss never received any discipline at all.
The Supreme Court ultimately granted Battaglia the more expansive interpretation of the law, and reaffirmed the $500,000 in economic damages, with damages for emotional distress to be decided by a jury.
"These were not the occasional words of a low-level employee having a bad day," Justice Helen Hoens wrote in a 55-page opinion, "but were the words of a supervisor, uttered in meetings with managerial employees, both repeatedly and routinely."
Battaglia is relieved that he's finally been vindicated. "It was eight long agonizing years. Eight long agonizing years," he says. "... They just thought I was a troublemaker. But the courts proved it. I wasn't a troublemaker. I was a solid UPS-er."
"I'm still proud to say I'm a UPS-er," he says.