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Legal Ramifications of Sexual Harassment: What You Need to Know

Home Business Magazine Online

Sexual harassment has absolutely no place in the workplace. I am Joseph George, a certified Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) investigator specializing in probing allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination, and other workplace violations. Additionally, I hold roles as a Florida Supreme Court appellate, circuit, and county mediator, as well as a qualified arbitrator, mediating labor and employment cases. Throughout my career, I have encountered numerous instances of sexual harassment claims.

It is imperative for companies to fulfill their obligation of safeguarding all employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. Human Resources departments are committed to treating any allegation of sexual harassment with the utmost seriousness. In this article, I will explore various aspects of sexual harassment and provide guidance on what steps to take if you find yourself in such a challenging situation. Additionally, I will discuss specific sexual harassment cases to illustrate the repercussions companies face when mishandling such incidents.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment? 

Sexual harassment, whether it occurs in a workplace, educational institution, on the streets, or elsewhere, extends beyond mere sexual implications. It revolves around the harasser displaying hostility towards the victim or exerting power over them based on their gender. While the common scenario involves a male harasser and a female victim, it’s essential to recognize that men can also be victims, and sexual harassment occurs within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. Instances of sexual harassment can unfold between individuals of the same or different genders.

The issue of sexual harassment within the workplace is a grave concern. Its repercussions go beyond the immediate individuals involved, affecting the overall health and well-being of workers. Workplace sexual harassment can diminish productivity, contribute to increased absenteeism, and lead to higher turnover rates.

Federal Law

Federal legislation categorizes workplace sexual harassment as a manifestation of sex discrimination, rendering it illegal nationwide. Typically, these national laws are applicable to employers with a workforce of 15 or more individuals, although your state may have more comprehensive regulations that encompass smaller employers.

Sexual Harassment Is Illegal

Engaging in sexual harassment is against the law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) prohibits employers from permitting any form of workplace sexual harassment, irrespective of an individual’s sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

Retaliation Is Also Against the Law

It is unlawful for someone in the workplace to retaliate, meaning to punish you, for reporting or speaking out against sexual harassment or participating in an investigation or legal action related to sexual harassment. Examples of retaliation in the workplace encompass actions such as termination or demotion, salary reductions, cuts in hours or benefits, reassignment to a different shift, location, or position, imposition of new or altered duties, or being required to take unpaid leave. Retaliation can also manifest subtly, gradually intensify, or worsen over time, including instances such as being excluded by coworkers, no longer receiving invitations to meetings, or being excluded from communications in which you were previously included.

What Is Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment?

It’s when a supervisor or other manager asks or demands sexual contact from you in return for employment benefits or promotions. It is still sexual harassment even if you didn’t say “no.” If you felt pressured to have sexual contact because you were embarrassed to say no, or afraid you would lose your job, or afraid you would be punished at work, then your sexual contact could have been a form of illegal harassment. Your gender status does not have to be the only reason you were singled out for this unfair treatment, but it must be a large part of the reason you were harassed.

What If I Am an Undocumented Worker Being Sexual Harassed?

Undocumented workers are generally covered by most labor and employment laws, including those addressing workplace sexual harassment. However, recovering back pay for claims related to workplace sexual harassment can pose challenges for undocumented workers.

If you engage a lawyer’s services, it is crucial to note that your immigration status is typically kept confidential under the “attorney-client privilege.” This legal principle ensures that your lawyer cannot disclose any details about your case, including your immigration status, without your explicit permission. There are limited exceptions to this confidentiality rule. It’s advisable to discuss with your lawyer strategies to safeguard your immigration status from being exposed. A skilled attorney can work to ensure that individuals involved in your workplace sexual harassment case remain unaware of your immigration status.

In certain circumstances, you may be eligible for a “U visa” due to workplace sexual harassment. U visas are designed for crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement investigations. Obtaining a U visa would grant you legal stay in the U.S.

What Is Sexual Harassment “Hostile Work Environment”? 

This is the more common type of sexual harassment seen in the workplace. “Hostile Work Environment” is a prevalent form of sexual harassment observed in workplaces. It transpires when a supervisor or colleague engages in sexually suggestive comments, gestures, advances, pictures, emails, texts, touches, or humor that unreasonably disrupts an individual’s work performance.

Can My Employer Penalize Me for Reporting Sexual Harassment?

No, they cannot. Title VII prohibits employers from engaging in retaliatory actions against you for filing a harassment complaint or speaking out against harassment. The protection extends to you even if you decide to participate in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing on behalf of a coworker whom you believe has experienced a violation of their rights under Title VII. Feel empowered to raise your voice if you suspect harassment in your workplace, whether directed at you or a colleague!

What Does Sexual Harassment Entail? 

Sexual harassment can manifest in various scenarios, involving individuals of any gender and diverse relationships with the victim, such as direct managers, indirect supervisors, coworkers, teachers, peers, or colleagues.

Various forms of sexual harassment include:

  • Linking employment conditions or advancement to explicit or implicit demands for sexual favors.
  • Committing physical acts of sexual assault.
  • Soliciting sexual favors.
  • Engaging in verbal harassment of a sexual nature, encompassing jokes referencing sexual acts or orientation.
  • Initiating unwanted touching or physical contact.
  • Making unwelcome sexual advances.
  • Discussing sexual relations, stories, or fantasies in inappropriate settings like the workplace or school.
  • Feeling pressured to engage in sexual interactions.
  • Exposing oneself or performing sexual acts on oneself.
  • Sending unwanted sexually explicit photos, emails, or text messages.

Failing to Tackle Workplace Harassment: The Costly Consequences for Companies

In instances where companies neglect to address an employee’s complaint of sexual harassment, individuals pursuing justice may be entitled to various remedies, depending on the circumstances. Whether the harassment persists or results in termination, potential remedies include:

  1. Compensatory damages.
  2. Reinstatement to the job with full pay and benefits.
  3. Back pay covering the period from termination to settlement or verdict.
  4. Punitive damages, particularly if the misconduct was exceptionally egregious or if there are similar claims and settlements.
  5. Emotional damages to compensate for psychological suffering and damage to reputation.
  6. “Front pay” damages representing the potential earnings if employment had continued at the same workplace.

When HR Fails: The High Stakes of Mishandling Sexual Harassment Claims

Instances abound where companies have faltered in addressing sexual harassment complaints, failing to adhere to the best practices dictated by the law. Some noteworthy cases underscore these failures:

  1. Lack of Timely Response: In certain situations, companies have exhibited a lack of urgency in responding to sexual harassment complaints, neglecting the necessity for prompt and thorough investigations.
  2. Inadequate Training: Companies may fall short in providing comprehensive training to employees and management on recognizing, preventing, and addressing sexual harassment, contributing to a culture where such complaints are not taken seriously.
  3. Retaliation Against Complainants: Rather than addressing complaints impartially, some companies have been known to retaliate against those who come forward, creating a hostile environment that discourages reporting.
  4. Lack of Transparency: Failure to maintain transparency in the investigation process can erode trust within the workforce, exacerbating the negative impact of sexual harassment incidents.
  5. Failure to Implement Corrective Measures: Companies may neglect to implement adequate corrective measures, allowing a culture of harassment to persist without effective intervention.
  6. Inadequate Policies: Companies with poorly defined or inadequately communicated anti-harassment policies may inadvertently foster an environment where inappropriate behavior goes unchecked.
  7. Ignoring Repeat Offenders: Instances where companies overlook patterns of misconduct by repeat offenders contribute to an unsafe and unhealthy workplace environment.

Addressing these deficiencies requires a commitment to fostering a culture of respect, comprehensive training, and swift, impartial action when sexual harassment complaints arise. Companies must strive to align their practices with legal standards to create a safe and inclusive workplace for all employees.

These cases highlight the importance of companies not upholding their responsibility to maintain a safe working environment, and the legal repercussions they face when falling short of these obligations.

Chopourian v. Catholic Healthcare West (E.D. Cal. 2012) Verdict / Settlement $168 million

A 45-year-old surgical physician’s assistant brought a lawsuit against Catholic Healthcare West claiming she was subjected to a hostile work environment, sexual harassment, harassment, and wrongful termination. Ms. Chopourian was subjected to inappropriate remarks, sexual advances, and derogatory comments. When she complained about suffering mistreatment at the hands of other male employees, the defendant retaliated against her through defamation, false accusations, and unwarranted discipline.

Carlson v. Ailes, (N.J. Super. Ct. 2016) Settlement $20 million

Ms. Carlson, a former Fox News Anchor filed a lawsuit directly at her former boss and the CEO and Chairman of Fox News for sexual harassment. Her claims included retaliation, unfair compensation, sexual harassment, and emotional distress. She filed an internal complaint against Steven Doocy for disparate treatment and harassment. Mr. Ailes retaliated against her by giving her less prestigious assignments and reducing her compensation. During this time, he alluded to restoring her status at Fox News in exchange for sex. She was awarded $20 million and Fox issued an apology on Mr. Ailes behalf. Following the lawsuit, other women came forward alleging Mr. Ailes committed multiple acts of sexual harassment.

 Landlord Settles Sexual Harassment Suit for $2.13M

The owner and manager of dozens of residential rental properties in Bakersfield, Calif., recently agreed to pay more than $2 million to settle allegations that he sexually harassed female prospects and residents. This represents the largest monetary settlement ever agreed to in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the Justice Department under the Fair Housing Act.

McDonald’s Franchise to Pay Nearly $2 Million to Settle EEOC Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

(EEOC v. AMTCR, Inc., et. al., Case No: 2:21-cv-01808)

Chipotle to Pay $400,000 to Settle EEOC Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

(EEOC v. Chipotle Services, LLC and Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., Case No. 2:22-cv-00279-RSL-MLP)

Carrabba’s to Pay $690,000 to Settle EEOC Lawsuit for Sexual Harassment

(EEOC v. Carrabba’s Italian Grill, LLC, et al, Civil Action No. 8:21-cv-02507-SDM-CPT)

Mueller Co. and IH Services to Pay $150,000 to Settle EEOC Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Suit   (EEOC v. Mueller Co. LLC and IH Services, Inc., Case No. 4:23-cv-00552-CLM)

What Should I Do If I’m Being Sexually Harassed at Work?

If you suspect that you are experiencing sexual harassment at your workplace, consider the following steps. Keep in mind that each situation is unique, and it’s essential to take actions that align with your specific circumstances.

  1. Review your employee handbook or company policies to identify any existing sexual harassment protocols. If such policies are in place, adhere to them. Document your complaints in writing, providing specific details such as the time, location, actions, and any witnesses involved.
  2. If comfortable, inform your supervisor about the inappropriate behavior and outline the steps you’ve taken to address it. If direct communication with your supervisor feels challenging, report the incidents to the human resources department or the designated person responsible for handling workplace complaints. Your company may have an internal Equal Employment Opportunity Officer or another avenue for submitting internal complaints.
  3. Alternatively, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if you believe your situation falls under Title VII. It is your right to submit a discrimination complaint to the EEOC, the federal agency tasked with enforcing antidiscrimination laws. Time is crucial, as you generally have 180 calendar days (six months) from the date of the discriminatory activity to file a charge with the EEOC. This filing deadline extends to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency enforces laws against employment discrimination on the same basis. Legal representation is not mandatory to file a complaint with the EEOC, and the agency’s website provides instructions for submitting a charge. Don’t delay in taking action to preserve your rights.

Need Legal Counsel? Here Are Some of the Best Employment Attorneys My Firm Works With

Tully Rinckey PLLC

Richard Celler Legal, P.A., a/k/a the Florida Overtime Lawyer

Daniel H. Hunt, Esq.

Dulce Brooks

Dear Dulce Brooks,

I wanted to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude for your invaluable assistance with the article’s case analysis and research. Your dedication and expertise were instrumental in the success of this article. A Heartfelt Thank You for Your Exceptional Support.

DISCLAIMER: Material presented in this article and on this website is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended as professional advice and should not be construed as such. Transmission of the information and material herein is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship with Joseph George, George & George ADR Group or any member thereof.

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