Sexual Harassment Attorney
Workplace sexual harassment grabs headlines when high-profile individuals such as television host Bill O’Reilly and movie producer Harvey Weinstein are involved.
But less-known cases are sometimes equally eye-popping. A Texas jury awarded a teenager almost $8 million in a sexual harassment lawsuit against Chipotle in 2016. In California, a physician’s assistant was awarded a whopping $168 million as a result of the hostile sexual environment at the hospital where she worked.
The common reality of sexual harassment in the workplace is that those spectacular cases represent a tiny fraction of the problem. About 45 percent of the total workplace harassment charges filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2015 by private or local government workers were for sexual harassment. Despite the volume, such cases are difficult to prove and win so it’s critical to be prepared.
Defining sexual harassment
Sexual harassment includes requests for sexual favors, verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature and even inappropriate remarks about a person’s gender. Men and women can be victims or perpetrators, and sexual harassment can be male-to-male or female-to-female.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits many forms of discrimination, and sexual harassment is considered a type of discrimination. There are two distinct forms of workplace sexual harassment recognized by the courts:
Quid pro quo sexual harassment describes situations in which employment decisions are tied to the expectation of or denial of sexual favors. For example, if a manager tells a subordinate they must consent to sex in order to receive a raise, that’s quid pro quo harassment.
Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when the workplace has become offensive or intimidating. Making repeated, crude sexual comments for another employee to hear could be an example of creating a hostile work environment.
Typically, a pattern of behavior is necessary in order for that behavior to meet the standard of a hostile workplace environment. A single comment or action is not enough. However, that single action could qualify as quid pro quo sexual harassment if a workplace decision is based on the action.
Preventing and stopping sexual harassment
If a person feels they are being sexually harassed, it’s best not a jump to a claim or lawsuit. Other steps are recommended before that action.
First, tell the person their behavior is problematic. There still are many individuals who don’t realize their behavior could be considered sexually offensive or inappropriate. Directly addressing the situation might be enough to stop it.
If that doesn’t change the behavior, review the procedures for reporting workplace harassment outlined in an employee handbook. If no such handbook exists, take the complaint to an immediate supervisor. It’s illegal to retaliate against an employee who reports sexual harassment, but it still happens often, so document every interaction.
Filing an Illinois Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
The third step would be to file a sexual harassment claim with either the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR). The EEOC covers companies with at least 15 employees; the state organization covers all. Complaints with the EEOC must be filed within 300 days of the incident; with the IDHR, it’s 180 days. A lawyer is not required to file a claim, but may help determine which is the best course of action.
For federal cases, the EEOC will determine if discrimination has occurred. If the answer is yes, the agency will try to reach a settlement with the employer. Failing that, either the EEOC will file a suit itself or provide a “Notice of Right to Sue” for the complainant. However, if the EEOC determines there was no discrimination, that “Notice of Right to Sue” is still provided and an individual can proceed in court.
Cases filed with the IDHR rest entirely with the state. The Illinois Human Rights Commission reviews claims and determines if discrimination occurred based on the Illinois Human Rights Act. There is no recourse to sue in state court if the commission decides there was no harassment.
What to expect in a lawsuit
Federal cases can take years to go to trial, and in the meantime an employer might pursue a settlement to avoid the expense and bad publicity of a trial. It can be a difficult wait for the plaintiff if they remain in the same work environment. As noted before, retaliation for filing is illegal but still happens.
Plaintiffs who do triumph in court could be entitled to compensation for:
- Lost wages (back pay and front pay)
- Compensatory damages — for the pain and suffering endured by the plaintiff
- Punitive damages — punishment against the defendant
- Attorney’s fees
If you feel you might be a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, contact the Wood Law Office to gain a thorough understanding of your options.