Helping women and men who have been sexually harassed at work
You have the right to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace. The Cleveland attorneys at Bolek Besser Glesius LLC have helped many victims of workplace sexual harassment protect themselves, and get the justice they deserve.
What is the legal definition of sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is generally defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace. There are two types of sexual harassment.
The first is “quid pro quo” harassment, which is when terms and conditions of the job depend on submitting to a sexual advance. The classic example is the boss who says “Sleep with me or you’re fired,” and then fires the employee for refusing. In many cases, the harassment is of course more subtle than that. Still, an employer may not condition the receipt of some benefit (like a promotion or a raise) or avoidance of some negative action (like a suspension, demotion, or firing) on an employee’s willingness to submit to unwelcome sexual conduct.
The second type is what’s commonly known as “hostile environment” harassment. This type of harassment includes unwelcome sexual comments or other sexual conduct that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an employee’s ability to do the job, or that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. The harassment typically takes a variety of different forms. These might include:
- Offensive sexual jokes, slurs, epithets, or name calling;
- Sexual assaults, groping, or touching;
- Sexual remarks about a person’s physical appearance or attire;
- Intimidation, ridicule, or mockery; or,
- Displaying offensive objects or pictures.
To be illegal, the conduct must be severe or pervasive. Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless they are severe) will not typically be considered unlawful.
Is my employer liable for sexual harassment?
Both men and women can be a harasser or a victim of sexual harassment. A harasser might be the victim’s supervisor, co-worker, a supervisor or management employee from another area of the company, an executive of the company, or even a customer or client. Under certain circumstances, a harasser might even be the same sex as the victim.
The Supreme Court has developed different sets of rules to determine whether an employer will be liable for sexual harassment depending on who the harasser is. As a result, employer liability in harassment cases is a complex question that requires guidance from an experienced attorney.
When the harasser is a supervisor, employer liability depends the type of harassment involved. If the harassment results in termination, failure to promote, or another decision causing a significant change in benefits or responsibilities, the employer is automatically liable (assuming the employee proves the harassment). If the harassment is instead a hostile work environment, the employer must try to prove an affirmative defense. In that situation, the employer can avoid liability by proving that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct harassing behavior, and that the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any employer anti-harassment policy. Under a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case, Vance v. Ball State University, a “supervisor” includes only those individuals “empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.”
If the harasser does not qualify as a supervisor, then employer liability is determined by the rules governing co-worker harassment. When the harasser is a co-worker, the employer will be liable only if it was negligent in allowing or failing to stop the sexual harassment. Essentially, the question is whether the employer took reasonable steps to prevent harassment in the workplace.
What are the remedies for sexual harassment claims?
Victims of sexual harassment are entitled to a variety of remedies designed to put them in the same position as though the harassment did not occur. Those remedies might include lost back pay, front pay, and other out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a result of the harassment. The employee can also recover compensatory damages for emotional distress caused by the harassment. Both Ohio and federal law also permit the employee to recover punitive damages against the employer in some circumstances, designed to punish malicious conduct and deter others in the future. In addition, employees may be able to recover their attorney fees and the costs of pursuing their rights in court.
Protecting employees who report sexual harassment
There are many reasons why victims do not report sexual harassment. Some of them include feelings of guilt or shame. Another common reason is fear of retaliation. Fortunately, however, the laws that ban sexual harassment also forbid retaliation against individuals who oppose or report it.
Both Title VII and Ohio Revised Code Chapter 4112 provide a separate cause of action for employees when their employer retaliates for making a good faith complaint of sexual harassment. When an employee reports or otherwise opposes sexual harassment, an employer may not take any negative action against the employee as a result, if the action taken would dissuade a reasonable person from coming forward. It is important to note that the reporting employee need not actually be proven right to be protected from retaliation. As long as the employee makes a report in good faith, the employee is protected. In fact, because a retaliation claim is a separate cause of action, in some cases an employee might prevail on such a claim, even if he or she cannot prove sexual harassment.
It can take courage to report sexual harassment. But you should report it. Not only does the law protect you from retaliation if you do, it might not protect you if you don’t; you cannot expect the harassment to stop unless you take action. Most sexual harassers will continue their behavior until someone stops them. In some cases, the harasser’s conduct will get worse over time if allowed to continue. And chances are, you are not the only victim. It is not uncommon for harassers to move from one victim to the next because nobody stops them. At some point, someone has to speak out.
Cleveland, Ohio employment law attorneys
You don’t have to tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace. Contact us today or request a free consultation. We can help with cases involving sexual harassment and even sexual assault in Cleveland, Lorain, Akron, and throughout Northeast Ohio. We will be there for you throughout the entire process, working to protect your rights and help restore your peace of mind.