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Can I Sue for Harassment?

Yes, depending on where it occurred and what the facts are, you can sue for harassment:

  • If you are harassed in the workplace and are a member of a protected class, you may be able to sue for workplace discrimination under federal and state law.
  • If you are intentionally harassed and suffer extreme emotional distress, you may be able to bring a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress under state law.
  • If you just want the harassment to stop, you may be able to petition a state court for a harassment restraining order or an order for protection.
  • There may also be grounds for you to press state criminal charges.

The four different situations are discussed below.

Workplace Harassment

Harassment in the workplace can be a form of employment discrimination. Employment discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal and state discrimination laws. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment is unwelcome conduct based upon:

  • Race
  • Sex (including pregnancy, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity)
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Age (beginning at 40)
  • Disability
  • Genetic information

The law also protects you from your employer retaliating against you for complaining about harassment.

Types of Workplace Harassment: Quid Pro Quo

Workplace harassment takes two forms. The first is what's called a “quid pro quo," which is Latin for “something for something." That's when putting up with a superior's harassing behavior becomes a condition of employment or continued employment. Employers are automatically liable for quid pro quo harassment that results in negative employment action.

The most common form of quid pro quo harassment is sexual harassment. For a simple example, suppose your boss suggests that you might get a promotion if you sleep with him. You refuse. He promotes someone else. If he didn't promote you because you refused to sleep with him, you have been unlawfully discriminated against.

Note that there is a difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault. Here there was no physical contact. Sexual assault is sexual contact without the victim's consent. And it's a crime.

Types of Workplace Harassment: Hostile Work Environment

The second kind is called a hostile work environment. To show a hostile work environment, you must demonstrate workplace harassment so severe and pervasive that a reasonable person would consider the work environment hostile, intimidating, or abusive.

If you make this showing, your employer is automatically liable unless they can show:

  • They reasonably tried to promptly correct the harassing behavior
  • You unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by them (such as filing a complaint with human resources)

Suing for Workplace Harassment

You can't just go to court and sue. There is a process you have to follow first.

Filing a Charge

You first have to file what's called a charge of discrimination with the EEOC (or a state agency with enforcement authority). A charge is a signed statement that asserts that your boss engaged in employment discrimination and asks that the EEOC help.

There are time limits. For most forms of employment discrimination, you have 180 days from the date of the harassment in which to file a charge. That deadline is extended to 300 days if state law also prohibits the discriminatory conduct.

Age discrimination is a little different. The 180-day deadline is extended to 300 days only if state law also prohibits the conduct and there exists a state agency that has enforcement authority. You need to have both.

EEOC Investigation and Right to Sue

Once the EEOC receives a charge, it investigates. If it believes there is not enough evidence of discrimination, it will notify you in writing of your right to sue. You then have 90 days in which to bring a lawsuit.

If the EEOC believes there is sufficient evidence of discrimination, it will try to get you and your employer to resolve your dispute through a voluntary process called conciliation. If the parties agree to settle, you don't need to go to court.

If you're unable to work it out, the EEOC will decide whether it wants to sue your employer in federal court. If not, it will close your case. You then would have 90 days in which to bring your own lawsuit. Your ability to sue does not depend on what the EEOC concludes, it's just that the timing of your suit may vary.

Potential Relief for Workplace Harassment

If you do sue, you may be able to recover:

  • Compensatory damages (e.g., back pay, lost benefits, lost bonuses or raises, etc.)
  • Equitable relief (e.g., your job back, a pay raise, etc.)
  • Punitive damages (damages designed to punish the wrongdoer for particularly outrageous behavior)
  • Attorneys' fees

Employment discrimination cases, especially sexual harassment cases, can be complicated. If you believe you may have been subjected to unlawful workplace harassment and want to learn more about your rights, consult an experienced employment lawyer.

Employment law cases can be expensive, but many lawyers will offer a free consultation. Some may take your discrimination lawsuit on what's called a contingency fee basis (that's when the law firm gets paid out of any recovery you get).

Civil Harassment: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

State law lets you sue for extreme harassment that results in severe emotional distress. To prove what is called intentional infliction of emotional distress, you must show:

  • Your harasser acted intentionally or recklessly
  • The harassment was extreme and outrageous
  • The harassment caused you emotional distress
  • The distress you suffered was severe (in some states, you have to show you suffered physical, not just emotional, harm, like nightmares, nausea, and sleeplessness)

Courts can award compensatory damages. This can include all sorts of categories, including not just emotional distress, but also lost wages for the time you were unable to work and doctor bills. If your harasser's conduct is particularly bad, you may be able to recover punitive damages.

Seek legal advice from a personal injury attorney if you want to learn more about a harassment lawsuit and whether going to court makes sense for you.

Harassment Restraining Order and Orders for Protection

You may be getting flooded with phone calls, text messages, or experiencing other harassing behavior from a stranger or someone you know. If so, you may be able to petition a state court for an order prohibiting the conduct.

That order is called different things in different places, but it is most commonly referred to as a restraining order. In some states, if you used to live with your harasser or shared a sexual relationship with them, you may be able to petition for an order for protection. Such orders are unfortunately necessary to protect against domestic violence.

Most courts provide forms and guidance about how to prepare these petitions, so you may be able to file one without the help of a lawyer. Some courts and private organizations provide a free advocate who will help you fill out the proper forms and appear beside you in court (they cannot represent you, however).

But if your situation is complicated or if your harasser opposes your petition, you may want to speak to a capable family law attorney. If you cannot afford one, you may be able to obtain a volunteer attorney through a local community service organization.

Criminal Harassment

Criminal harassment is mostly defined by state law. States have different harassment definitions and laws, but virtually all criminalize intentional and repeated efforts to annoy, frighten, or intimidate you.

Minor annoyances aren't criminal. A prosecutor generally needs to show a credible threat to your safety in order to establish the crime of harassment.

Depending on the nature, frequency, and severity of the harassment, the crime could be a misdemeanor or even a felony. In many places, charges are enhanced if the harassment is due to someone's sex, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or gender identity.

If you believe you are being harassed and want to press charges, call the police right away.

Know Your Rights

As you can see, you have many options when it comes to harassment. We have provided links to different types of lawyers above if you are interested in learning more or are having to deal with a harasser. But we want to emphasize — if you are concerned about your safety, call the police first.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney to help you navigate the challenges presented by litigation.

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