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Can I Sue for Harassment if I Quit?

Yes, you can sue an employer for harassment whether or not you quit. Quitting a job may mean losing out on unemployment benefits, but you can still sue for harassment or discrimination. If you do want to sue your employer before or after quitting, you may want to get legal advice from an experienced wrongful termination attorney.

What Is Harassment on the Job?

Harassment is unwelcome conduct based on an employee's sex, race, color, disability, or other protected class. When a worker is harassed, they may be able to file a lawsuit if they file a claim through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A claim, or "charge," for unlawful harassment can help the worker recover back pay, benefits, medical bills, and other money damages.

Harassment generally goes beyond just teasing or petty comments. For mistreatment to be unlawful, the conduct must be unwelcome or unwanted and be so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile workplace or abusive working conditions. Some examples of offensive conduct may include offensive jokes, calling someone racial slurs, unwanted touching, offensive pictures or comics, or making physical threats.

Offensive conduct and harassment can occur between anyone in the workplace. The harasser could be a supervisor, boss, co-worker, or even a contractor. When a worker does complain to an employer about harassment, the employer should take immediate action to stop any further offensive conduct.

When a supervisor is found to be harassing an employee, the employer is responsible for the supervisor's conduct. If another employee is the harasser, the employer may be on the hook if they knew about or should have known about the conduct and didn't take action.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is where it becomes almost impossible to do the functions of your job without interference or fear. Generally, a single event does not create a hostile environment. Harassment has to be something that is severe or happens multiple times. How bad was the conduct? How often does it occur? If it is bad enough to create an abusive workplace, it may be harassment.

Constructive Discharge and Quitting

Discharge is another term for being fired. A constructive discharge claim means that the worker quits or resigns because they are being harassed. If the employee quits because of the employer's unlawful discrimination, the employer may be responsible just as if they fired the employee, because the harassment forced the employee to quit.

What Types of Harassment Are Illegal at Work?

State and federal laws protect employees from harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Each state's discrimination and harassment laws may be different, but some states have greater protections for workers than federal law. The main federal laws that protect against employment discrimination are:

These laws protect workers from harassment and discrimination based on certain categories or protected classes. Federally protected classes protect workers from harassment based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity
  • National origin
  • Workers age 40 or older
  • Disability
  • Genetic information

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can happen in all types of workplaces, from restaurants to hospitals to small retail shops. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other sexual conduct that creates a hostile or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment can include unwanted physical touching, making inappropriate sexual jokes, or sharing graphic pictures.

Another type of sexual harassment is known as “quid pro quo." Quid pro quo sexual harassment generally involves a manager or supervisor offering a benefit to an employee in exchange for sexual favors.

Most sexual harassment claims involve a male harasser and a female victim. However, sexual harassment can happen regardless of gender, such as a female supervisor harassing a male employee or same-sex harassment.

Harassment for Race, Religion, or National Origin

There is a long history of discrimination based on race and color in the U.S. Discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin is prohibited. This includes harassment based on perceived race, religion, or national origin. For example, if an employee harasses a co-worker because they think the co-worker is Muslim, it is still considered harassment if the worker is really Protestant.

Harassment can still occur between individuals of the same race, religion, or national origin. If a supervisor from Brazil harasses another Brazilian employee based on their race or national origin, it can still be considered unlawful harassment.

Disability Harassment

Harassment and discrimination based on disability or perceived disability are prohibited under the ADA. Harassment can include making jokes about a disability or claiming the disabled employee is faking their disability to get out of work. When disability harassment has become so severe it creates a hostile workplace, the worker can file an EEOC claim against the employer.

Sex and Gender Discrimination

Sex and gender discrimination laws protect workers from unlawful harassment based on the worker's sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy. LGBTQ+ workers may be harassed because of their actual or perceived gender identity or orientation. Like sexual harassment, sex and gender discrimination can include a victim and harasser of the same sex or different sex.

Age Discrimination

Age discrimination laws protect workers who are age 40 or older. Harassment can include offensive jokes about a worker's age, berating an older worker because of their age, or making the job so terrible for the older worker that they will be forced to quit. Federal age discrimination laws only apply to older workers; a 16-year-old, for example, is generally not protected from discrimination laws because they are told they're too young for a job.

Can I Quit Due To Harassment?

Workplace harassment can be stressful, humiliating, and frightening. However, you don't have to quit in order to sue. You can file a complaint with the EEOC or with your employer as soon as you face harassment. In some cases, the harassment may be so bad that you feel like you have to quit. Quitting doesn't mean you can't sue for harassment. You can file a complaint while still working or after you quit.

What Happens If I Quit My Job Because of Harassment?

Quitting can take away some of the benefits of getting laid off or fired. If you are laid off, you may be able to recover unemployment compensation while you look for another job. Unemployment can also provide income while you are pursuing a harassment lawsuit. Quitting can also be seen as a negative for future employment, even if you explain that you quit because you were being harassed.

Can I Sue If I Quit?

Yes, you can sue your employer if you quit. Quitting a job may leave you with fewer options, including loss of unemployment benefits. However, if you are harassed at your job and quit, you can still file a harassment lawsuit against the employer. Depending on your lawsuit, talk to your employment lawyer about how you can sue for back pay, emotional distress, legal fees, front pay, loss of benefits, and punitive damages.

How Much Time to Sue for Harassment?

There may be a time limit to how much time you have to file a harassment claim. According to the EEOC, you need to file a charge within 180 days from the date of the discrimination or last incident of harassment. If your state law also prohibits discrimination on the same basis, the deadline is extended to 300 days. Make sure you talk to an employment lawyer as soon as possible to make sure your claim is filed in time.

Can I Get Fired for Reporting Harassment?

If you report harassment to an employer, your employer cannot retaliate against you. State laws and federal labor laws protect workers who are retaliated against for protected activity. Unlawful retaliation is some action that hurts your work environment in response to your report. Retaliation can include firing you from your job, threatening to fire you, a pay reduction, demotions, or loss of benefits. Retaliation laws also apply if you complain about another employee getting harassed.

If You Do Want to Sue for Harassment, Talk to a Lawyer

Employers and human resources departments are aware of what harassment can mean for the company. Your employer may have lawyers on staff or have a law firm they used to deal with harassment claims. Sexual harassment cases can be difficult and you should not have to go through them all alone.

If you think you are being harassed at work, talk to an experienced workplace harassment lawyer. Forming an attorney-client relationship with an employment attorney gives you the opportunity to get legal advice about your particular situation. They can help you decide whether to bring a lawsuit.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified employment discrimination attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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