Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

January 25, 2016

Federal law, specifically Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, makes sexual harassment in the workplace illegal. However, many states have made sexual harassment a violation of state law as well.

Illegal and unwanted sexual conduct falls under two types of behaviors: (1) quid pro quo, which essentially means if you do this for me, I will do that for you and (2) hostile work environment, which is where intentional, severe, actions interfere with an employee’s or a witness’s ability to perform her job. In order to prove that an employee is working under a hostile work environment he or she will have to prove that the offensive behavior was recurrent and pervasive—and that he or she had to endure this workplace environment in order to keep his or her job.

Employees may receive money damages by suing their employer and fellow employees. The EEOC or the state anti-discrimination enforcement agency (often referred to as civil rights offices or human rights commissions) could file suit on behalf of the employee. In addition, the employee could choose to hire a private lawyer to file suit for them. It is important to take action quickly because federal and state laws have statues of limitations. Complaints filed outside these guidelines could be dismissed for being filed too late.

Victims may fear filing suit because he or she is worried their employer will punish them for complaining. However, Federal and State laws prohibit retaliation against employees who file harassment claims. Retaliation includes any adverse employment decisions made against a victim who has filed a complaint.

An employer can protect his or herself against sexual harassment lawsuits by having a well-defined sexual harassment policy that is disseminated among its employees. Proactive employers often conduct trainings that explain what is and is not sexual harassment. Many go over the reporting policy. An employee who believes a co-worker, supervisor, independent contractor, or client is violating the policy would then be required to go through the proper complaint channels before being able to file a successful anti-discrimination lawsuit.

An area of ongoing litigation involves whether sexual harassment based upon an employee’s sexual orientation is prohibited. In a September 2015 Federal New York case, Rodriguez v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, the court noted that “[t]he law is well-settled in this circuit and in all others to have reached the question that . . . Title VII does not prohibit harassment or discrimination because of sexual orientation.” Simonton v. Runyon, 232 F.3d 33, 35 (2d Cir. 2000). Therefore, under Federal law only sexual harassment based upon an employee’s sex and/or gender is illegal.

If you have more questions, contact PCW Law Firm.

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