Sexual Harassment Law
Sexual Harassment Law is primarily a large part of Employment Discrimination Law, Civil Rights Law and in some cases, may also result in a Personal Injury lawsuit. Although not clearly defined and subject to interpretation by various courts, sexual harassment is generally described as unwanted and unsolicited physical advances and conduct of a sexual nature, such as touching, rubbing and groping, and sexual, demeaning, degrading and/or offensive comments and activity that may or may not carry the implication that the individual being subjected to these advances may suffer job-related or school-related retribution if she/he rejects them.
Sexual harassment is usually divided into two main categories: Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment. Quid Pro Quo is the more overt form and refers to an individual in a position of power demanding sexual favors or acts in return for action or inaction, such as a promotion or promising not to terminate the employee or person of lesser power who is the subject of the harassment.
A hostile environment is the more common type of sexual harassment, but more difficult to prove. This exists when an employee is made to feel uncomfortable and suffers emotional and/or mental strain due to frequent exposure to offensive sexual talk and jokes, pornographic images and repeated unwelcome sexual advances, although there is no threat to the employee’s advancement in the work place or continued employment. This type of sexual harassment is that which is continually being interpreted and re-interpreted by case law and legislative actions.
The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for establishing and administering guidelines and regulations addressing sexual harassment by way of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. When filing a claim by way of the EEOC, the employee may seek the following remedies: reinstatement of employment if she/he has been terminated; a promotion that was unfairly denied; an award of lost wages and other job-related losses; punitive money damages; and injunctive relief, which orders the offender to cease the unwanted sexual harassment, to create a comprehensive written sexual harassment policy and to pay the employee’s attorney’s fees.
Additionally, many states have enacted Fair Employment Practice (FEP) laws which address and regulate sexual harassment on the state level. However, most of these statutes do not provide for recovery of personal injury damages in a sexual harassment claim.
If a company has an established sexual harassment policy in place, it is usually necessary to follow the steps and procedures set up by the policy before an employee can escalate the complaint to the EEOC or a state FEP agency. Only after compliance with the company policy has failed to resolve the problem, may the employee proceed with a claim outside of her/his employer’s purview.
The EEOC and state FEP agencies usually offer alternate dispute resolution (ADR) services as a means of resolving a sexual harassment dispute without formal legal involvement and excessive expense. A small minority of state level agencies have also established administrative courts which will hear the complaint and may award compensatory money damages for personal injuries sustained by the employee due to the sexual harassment.
When an employee has exhausted the services of the EEOC or state FEP agency without resolution of her/his complaint, only then may she/he sue. Usually the government agency will issue a legal document, most often called a “right-to-sue letter” that allows the employee to file a civil lawsuit.
Because most FEP laws don’t provide for the recovery of damages for physical, mental and emotional injuries, it is generally more profitable to file suit under the U.S. Civil Rights Act. It is important to determine, however, whether the employer meets the guidelines stipulated by this law in order to be eligible to recover the maximum amount.
In addition to work-related damages, such as denial of promotions, demotions, job and wage loss and other financial losses of job-related benefits, sexual harassment can also cause emotional, physical and mental injuries, due to stress, as well as physical violent acts and pranks.
A less common type of sexual harassment is that which occurs in an academic environment. These claims may be brought under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972. This includes harassment by teachers and professors against students and sexual harassment by students against other students. These types of claims have only recently been legitimized by a couple of U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 1990’s.
To consult Employment and Labor laws and regulations in your State visit our Department of Labor by State page.
Know Your Rights!
Sexual Harassment Law - US
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.
- Policy Guidance on Current Issues of Sexual Harassment - EEOC
This document provides guidance on defining sexual harassment and establishing employer liability in light of recent cases. In 1980 the Commission issued guidelines declaring sexual harassment a violation of Section 703 of Title VII, establishing criteria for determining when unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment, defining the circumstances under which an employer may be held liable, and suggesting affirmative steps an employer should take to prevent sexual harassment.
- Remedies under Sexual Harassment Law
Laws that protect workers from sexual harassment conceive of sexual harassment in a number of different ways: as discrimination based on sex, as an offense against dignity, or as an issue of health and safety in the workplace. The discrimination conception of sexual harassment law reflects an understanding that such law is designed to protect a vulnerable group—in this case mainly women—that is the target of inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.
- Sexual Harassment - Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
- Sexual Harassment in Schools - US Department of Education
Sexual harassment of students is prohibited by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 under the circumstances described in the Guidance. The Guidance provides educational institutions with information regarding the standards that are used by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and that institutions should use, to investigate and resolve allegations of sexual harassment of students engaged in by school employees, other students (peers), or third parties.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 - Title VII
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 established statutes that make it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex. Sexual harassment was included under the Act by precedent in 1986, when the Supreme Court recognized it as unlawful in the case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. This landmark decision enabled victims of sexual harassment to sue their employers for monetary damages.
- Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972
This law addresses sexual harassments in schools.
- US Department of Labor
The Department of Labor fosters and promotes the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements.
- Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors - EEOC
In Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 118 S. Ct. 2257 (1998), and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 118 S. Ct. 2275 (1998), the Supreme Court made clear that employers are subject to vicarious liability for unlawful harassment by supervisors. The standard of liability set forth in these decisions is premised on two principles: 1) an employer is responsible for the acts of its supervisors, and 2) employers should be encouraged to prevent harassment and employees should be encouraged to avoid or limit the harm from harassment. In order to accommodate these principles, the Court held that an employer is always liable for a supervisor’s harassment if it culminates in a tangible employment action.
Organizations Related to Sexual Harassment Law
- Employment Law Information Network
The Employment Law Information Network ("ELIN") is a no charge legal resource web site that is designed for employment lawyers, in-house employment counsel and human resource professionals.
- Harassment Resolution Services
Harassment Resolution Services is dedicated to helping people who are victims of sexual harassment and abuse in schools and helping teens who are sexually harassed on the job. Even though there are laws in place to address sexual harassment, statistics show sexual harassment and bullying are still on the rise.
- National Women's Law Center - Sexual Harassment
Ever since the Supreme Court made clear that Title IX and Title VII, the federal laws that prohibit sex discrimination in education and employment, outlaw this misconduct in schools and on the job, the Center has been a leader in combating harassment. In the education area, the Center's efforts include winning a landmark Supreme Court case establishing that schools must address student-to-student harassment; publishing clear guidance to parents, students, and educators about sexual harassment; litigating other landmark cases establishing key legal protections; and urging the federal government to take the necessary steps to protect students from this form of sex discrimination. For the employment area, the Center recently won a Second Circuit case establishing important principles for employer liability for harassment.
- Sexual Harassment Prevention Center
In business for over seven years, The Diversity Training Group continues to act as innovator and leader in organizational improvement. DTG features lively, interactive and results-driven workshops; comprehensive solutions; and realistic, proven methods for organizational change.
- Stop Violence Against Women - Sexual Harassment
The burden of preventing sexual harassment rests on the employer. In the United States, Canada and in some European Union Member States, employers are responsible for providing their employees with a work environment that does not discriminate and is free of harassment. Employers are, therefore, required by law to take steps to prevent and deal with harassment in the workplace.
Publications Related to Sexual Harassment Law
- Equal Rights Advocate - Sexual Harassment
Equal Rights Advocates is a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to protecting and expanding economic and education access and opportunities for women and girls.
- Sexual Harassment - HelpMe.com
Provides articles, press releases, publications and abstracts on harassment and more specifically sexual harassment.
- Stopping Sexual Harassment - AFSCME Guide
Sexual harassment is a type of illegal sex discrimination, yet it affects over two-thirds of working women and a significant number of men. Despite much public education through the media and through training programs from unions, employers and advocacy groups, the number of sexual harassment complaints filed rises every year. Increasingly, AFSCME union contracts are including specific language to deal with sexual harassment.