Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Sexual Harassment Laws
There are no Federal sexual harassment laws per se. Rather the offense was first prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidelines in 1980.
Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the EEOC's guidelines in the 1986 case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, when it determined that sexual harassment was unlawful conduct under Title VII.
It was a landmark Supreme Court precedent that gave legal rights to victims of sexual harassment, such as the right to sue their employers for monetary damages through the EEOC or private lawyers.
The EEOC enforces Federal sexual harassment law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex (gender). Sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination under the Act.
It is also illegal under the Act for an employer to retaliate in any way against an employee who reports sexual harassment, whether it is on the employee's own behalf or that of another employee. An employer also cannot retaliate against an employee who participates in related proceedings as a victim or witness.
Several states have enacted their own sexual harassment laws and regulations under what are generally called Fair Employment Practices (FEP) laws, another term for discrimination laws. Victims are protected by whichever sexual harassment law—Federal or state—affords the most protection.
Most sexual harassment lawsuits are filed by female employees who've been sexually harassed by male coworkers, supervisors, etc. But neither Federal nor state sexual harassment laws are intended to favor women. It is also illegal for women to sexually harass men and for members of a gender to sexually harass others of the same gender.
For more information about sexual harassment laws and which avenues of relief are available, start by contacting the nearest field office of the EEOC or a state equivalent, or consult a lawyer.
If you suspect that you're the victim of an employer's violation of a sexual harassment law, it's a good idea to consult a lawyer first. To manage its heavy caseload, the EEOC pursues only a small percentage of the thousands of sex-discrimination charges it receives annually (30,356 in FY 2012).
It logically follows that the more legally compelling your charge is, the better your chances are that the EEOC will act on your behalf. It's a lawyer's job to help you file your charge in a legally-compelling way.
Lawyers often take sexual harassment cases on contingency. But whether you decide to first contact a lawyer or the EEOC or a state equivalent, don't delay for long. Under Federal and state sexual harassment laws, you have only a relatively short time to initiate legal action, starting from the date on which the unwelcome sexual behavior first occurred. Such a time limit is referred to as a statute of limitations.
A state sexual harassment law or equivalent might entitle you to file a restraining order against your harasser, if he or she has threatened you or made you feel as though your safety, security or privacy is seriously at risk. Consult a lawyer for more information.
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