When you are the victim of sexual harassment, you often feel powerless and humiliated. The harasser could be someone who is more powerful than you, or they may be someone who you encounter on a daily basis at work.
Sexual harassment is illegal under federal and state law. If you have been a victim of sexual harassment, you have the power to fight back. You can file a claim against your employer and receive financial compensation if you are able to prove that your employer (and perhaps even your manager) broke the law. First, you should contact an experienced sexual harassment attorney to determine whether you have a possible lawsuit.
Federal and State Laws Prohibit Sexual Harassment
The main federal law that prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Your employer can be held responsible for the failure to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Once your employer knows that sexual harassment is occurring, they have a legal obligation to stop it. In 1991, Congress amended this law to allow victims to file civil lawsuits against their employers. This federal law applies to businesses that have 15 employees or more.
Sexual harassment is also illegal under Texas law. Section 21 of the Texas Labor Code prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. In 2021, the Texas Legislature changed the law to make managers, supervisors, and directors personally liable when they fail to adequately address sexual harassment in the workplace. They may also be sued for their individual conduct in addition to the lawsuit that may be filed against the employer. The Texas law applies to employers with one or more employees.
There are two primary types of sexual harassment:
- Quid pro quo
- Hostile work environment
Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment
One type of sexual harassment is called quid pro quo, which is Latin for “this for that.” In this type of sexual harassment, a supervisor, or someone else with power over you, makes a request for sexual favors in exchange for granting a benefit or not doing something to harm your job. For example, the manager could offer a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. They could also threaten to fire you if you do not engage in some type of sexual relations with them.
Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment
In addition, the work environment that you are subjected to could also be a form of sexual harassment. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a hostile work environment is when “the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
It goes without saying that persistent conduct could be considered sexual harassment. But you do not have to be subjected to consistent and ongoing conduct to have a potential right to sue for a hostile work environment. If there is one occurrence that is severe enough, you may be able to sue.
The law uses a “reasonable person” standard. This term may prevent someone who is overly sensitive (that is, more so than the average person) from filing a lawsuit. According to the EEOC, “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents” would not be considered sexual harassment. But an employer does not need to have the intent to create a hostile work environment or to sexually harass someone. The mere fact that it happens could be enough for the employer to be held liable.
Here are some examples of actions that may create a hostile work environment:
- Referring to an employee using a derogatory term for their gender
- Discussing sexual topics either in direct conversation with an employee or within their earshot
- Displaying sexually offensive materials in the workplace
- Excessive complimenting of an employee’s appearance or clothing
- Unwanted sexual advances towards the employee
There is both a subjective and an objective element to a hostile work environment. The employee must prove that they suffered personally from being exposed to the environment. However, their suffering must be how a reasonable person would have responded to what they saw or heard.
How to File a Sexual Harassment Claim
Sexual harassment claims are different from other types of legal claims. In other cases, you may go directly to court to sue a defendant. In a sexual harassment case, you must first go to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with your claim if you are alleging your employer violated federal law. The EEOC will review your claim and determine whether it wants to file it on your behalf against the employer.
The EEOC cannot and does not file every claim that it receives. If the EEOC decides not to take your claim, it is far from the end of your case. Instead, you then have the right to file a civil lawsuit against your employer in court. You may even prefer to work with your own lawyer and request that the EEOC waive its right to file your claim on your behalf.
You may also file a lawsuit against your employer in Texas under state law if you allege your employer’s actions violated Texas law. You may be able to file your complaint through the Texas Workforce Commission’s Civil Rights Division, and possibly in a Texas court.
If you plan to submit a complaint to both the EEOC and Texas Workforce Commission’s Civil Rights Division, consider only submitting your complaint with the Civil Rights Division. The Division will automatically submit your complaint to the EEOC through its Worksharing Agreement.
Damages Available in A Sexual Harassment Case
You have likely read stories of multimillion-dollar awards for victims who sued their employers for sexual harassment and won. There is no hard and fast rule about what your case is worth, other than the fact that you have the right to be paid in full for the damages that you have suffered. There are some cases that are worth tens of thousands of dollars, while there are other cases that could be worth millions. Everything depends on your own situation.
Here is what you may be compensated for in a sexual harassment claim:
- The mental distress you have experienced
- Lost wages if you were fired or were denied a promotion
- Costs of looking for a new job
- Costs of medical treatment and/or mental health care because of the effects of the harassment
In addition, you do not need to pay attorneys’ fees out of the proceeds of your settlement or award. Your employer will need to cover the cost of your sexual harassment lawyer if you win your case.
Punitive Damages in a Sexual Harassment Case
One thing that takes a large verdict and makes it massive is punitive damages. A jury will certainly be concerned with compensating you for your own suffering. Their role may also include punishing your employer for what they did. Although juries often award punitive damages in personal injury lawsuits, they may be willing to award them in sexual harassment lawsuits given the level of culpability the employer may have.
You end up being the beneficiary when your employer is hit with punitive damages for conduct that is particularly horrible. For example, in what is believed to be the largest sexual harassment jury verdict of all time, $125 million out of the $168 million jury award consisted of punitive damages against the employer. Punitive damages are a risk that your employer takes when it does not settle a lawsuit before the judge or jury renders a verdict.
What To Do if You Believe You Have Been a Victim of Sexual Harassment
There is no one exact right answer to the question of what you need to do when you have been sexually harassed. Your response may depend on the facts and circumstances of your situation.
In general, you can do several things to strengthen your possible legal case:
- Keep a contemporaneous log of what you encounter on a daily basis, especially incidents that could be deemed sexual harassment
- Retain any physical evidence that could prove your harassment case
- Contact an attorney to help you prepare for a potential claim or lawsuit
- Bring the harassment to the attention of a supervisor or a human resources staff member to allow them to address it (though whether you come forward to your company and who you speak to depends on your own circumstances)
Why You Need a Sexual Harassment Lawyer
When you are dealing with sexual harassment, you may feel powerless and victimized. This feeling may not change even after you report the illegal conduct. Your power comes from your legal rights in the situation. When you hire an attorney, you are in the best position to exercise your legal rights and put a stop to the offensive conduct.
It is not a stretch to say that you are taking on powerful interests when you file a sexual harassment claim. Your employer has their own attorneys, whose job it is to protect the company and keep it out of trouble. They may think nothing of crushing you and your legal rights. Your attorney’s job is to look out for you and fight back. Hiring a lawyer helps level the playing field and restores your feeling of power when it has been taken from you.
A lawyer will do the following for you in a sexual harassment case:
- Review the facts of your situation to help you determine whether you were sexually harassed
- Assist you in speaking to your employer by helping you outline your complaint
- Help you document the harassment
- Advise you of your options for obtaining compensation
- File a sexual harassment claim on your behalf and take your case to court if the EEOC and/or the Texas Workforce Commission’s Civil Rights Division will not advance your claim
You Can and Should Come Forward if You Have Been a Victim
There are numerous reasons why people may not say anything after they have been sexually harassed. For starters, they may be afraid that they will lose their job if they come forward. Federal and state laws prohibit your employer from retaliating against you for filing a complaint. Retaliation is not just limited to termination. You could be transferred, denied a promotion, or receive a negative performance review because your employer wants to punish you. Even if you were ultimately not sexually harassed, retaliation is a form of sexual harassment in and of itself.
If you think your employer’s actions may not have actually been harassment, you should still speak to an employment lawyer and let them make that determination for you. Some people may come up with their own way to justify their employer’s conduct when they have every reason and right to fight back. You should at least schedule a consultation with an attorney to discuss what happened and learn more about how the law applies to your facts.
We Will Not Ask for Money Out of Your Pocket
Many people considering whether to take legal action against their employer for sexual harassment may be concerned about the price of doing so. You may be wondering how you can afford an attorney since there is no guarantee of you winning your claim or receiving a significant amount of damages. The good news for you is that a sexual harassment lawyer will not ask you to spend money out of your own pocket. Further, if you do not win your case, you will not owe your attorney anything for their time. Employment attorneys like those at Feldman & Feldman are paid from the proceeds of your settlement or a judge or jury award if you win your case.
Contact a Feldman & Feldman Today
The attorneys at Feldman & Feldman will provide you with vigorous representation and advocacy when you have been the victim of sexual harassment. We will not let your employer off the hook easily without your being able to be heard. You can have your day in court when your employer has acted illegally. You can contact us here to schedule an appointment to speak with Houston sexual harassment lawyers.