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Employees have the right to be free of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment can make employees feel uncomfortable and unsafe — it can also impose a serious mental burden, making them uncertain about their career future unless they accept the harassing behavior. 

Fortunately, the #metoo movement has fundamentally changed society’s perceptions around sexual harassment. Whereas before victims were often disbelieved, the #metoo movement has empowered victims — both in and out of the workplace — to come forward and assert their claims. 

There has never been a better time to seek justice for the sexual harassment that you’ve been put through. We encourage you to call us at 1-800-THE-LAW2 to get connected to an experienced sexual harassment attorney in our network today. Consultation is free and confidential. 

What Qualifies As Sexual Harassment? 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has defined sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual behavior, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: 

  1. submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, or 
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or 
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. 

Whether the conduct is unwelcome is critical to the consideration of sexual harassment. If the conduct was welcomed, then that may not necessarily qualify as sexual harassment. 

For example, if you agree to go on a date with your colleague, and you consent to kissing, then that would not be sexual harassment (unless there is some other unwelcome conduct involved). 

Sexual harassment includes (but is not limited to) the following behaviors: 

  • Giving unwanted sexual attention (i.e., touching, leering, or jokes) 
  • Pressuring or forcing an employee to have sex 
  • Exposing an employee to pornography against their wishes 
  • Retaliating against an employee for complaining about sexual harassment 
  • Firing or not promoting an employee due to pregnancy 
  • Subjecting an employee to sexually-derogative comments, epithets, slurs 
  • Delivering suggestive or obscene letters, notes, or invitations to an employee 
  • And more 

For example, suppose that you are working late one evening, and your colleague sends you an email. You open the email, and it contains pornographic attachments. Further, your colleague makes it clear that they meant to send the email (with the related attachments). This has happened in the past, and you’ve made it known to your colleague that you were uninterested in seeing sexually graphic material, and that they should stop. 

Under these circumstances, you’d almost certainly have an actionable claim for sexual harassment. Significant damages may be owed. 

Employees Are Protected Under The Law 

Sexual harassment laws offer strong protection for employees. The Fair Employment and Housing Action (FEHA), expressly prohibits sexual harassment, while Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex unlawful. Your attorney will cite specific examples of how your rights have been violated and recommend the best course of action for a claim. 

Victims may obtain compensation for losses suffered as a result of: 

  • Mental anguish 
  • Retaliation 
  • Loss of income 
  • Loss of reputation 
  • And more 

Don’t be afraid to fight back. 

It’s important to contact an attorney as soon as possible after your workplace rights have been violated. The law gives you 180 days to file a charge with the EEOC (other deadlines apply to various state employment agencies). Secure legal representation early to give your lawyer enough time to investigate your claim, formulate a strong legal legal strategy, and file the necessary paperwork. 

Punitive Damages— Maximizing Compensation

Bonus punitive damages are sometimes available in workplace disputes, including those that center around claims of sexual harassment. 

Punitive damages work as a multiplier on the total damages amount. If your sexual harassment claim is worth $100,000, for example, then you could be entitled to $700,000 in punitive damages, for a total of $800,000 in damages. 

Punitive damages are meant to “punish” the defendant and thereby discourage others from engaging in similar behavior. The victim must show that the defendant engaged in intentional, malicious, or egregious misconduct — which sexual harassment often entails. 

For example, suppose that you are harassed in the workplace. Your boss has been sexually aggressive against you by touching you inappropriately despite you telling them not to. You complain to your employer, and they tell you to “stop complaining” and do everything they can to protect your boss from being outed as a sexual harasser, from destroying evidence to smearing your name in the workplace. This behavior is egregious and malicious enough to justify a punitive damages award. 

The court has the discretion to award bonus punitive damages and may choose not to. As such, it is important to work with an experienced attorney who knows how to develop a persuasive argument for punitive damages. 

Retaliation In The Workplace 

Employers often retaliate (or threaten retaliation) against victims of sexual harassment in the hopes that they will pressure the victims into avoiding a formal lawsuit. For example, an employer may threaten to fire a sexual harassment victim if they report the harassment to the EEOC. 

Retaliation is illegal throughout the United States. If you have been retaliated against for exercising your legal rights as an employee, then you may be entitled to significant damages as compensation. In fact, retaliation is an independent claim (it is separate from sexual harassment), and so it can make it even easier for you to secure a large damages award. 

If you’ve been sexually harassed, it’s important to take action immediately. Talk to an experienced sexual harassment attorney. Waiting too long can undermine the perceived legitimacy of your claims, and can make it more difficult to gather the necessary evidence. 

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Tarun Sridharan Legal Editor & Attorney Contributor Posted On: January 8, 2022
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