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Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is unacceptable and illegal, but in spite of the recent #MeToo movement, this offending behavior in the workplace and in academic environments continues, and victims are seeking recourse through the law. In 2018 sex-based harassment claims filed with the EEOC totaled 13,055, with 815 of those charges being filed in Tennessee. If you believe you have been the victim of sexual harassment, do not wait or allow such conduct to continue. Contact one of our Nashville sexual harassment attorneys today to receive professional counseling on your rights under the law and potential legal actions you can take.

What Laws Govern Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment laws are federal and state laws that address unwelcome and offensive sexual behavior. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the primary federal law that prohibits sexual harassment (as a form of sex discrimination) in the workplace. Some state laws offer additional protections.

In Tennessee, the Tennessee Human Rights Act (THRA) offers protection similar in scope to that of Title VII. The underlying basis for claims against an employer for sexual harassment fall under the provision in T.C.A. § 4-21-401 which states that it is a discriminatory practice for an employer to..."fail or refuse to hire or discharge any person or otherwise to discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of such individual's race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin..." Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbids discrimination on the basis of sex at educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance and has since been expanded to cover sexual harassment and violence. Under Title IX, schools are required to adopt and publish grievance procedures and protect victims from retaliation.

How Do I Know if Unwelcome Behavior is Sexual Harassment?

Isolated incidents such as an invitation for dinner, an off-color joke, a compliment, a sexist comment, flirtatious behavior, etc. do not constitute sexual harassment. However, a single act that is detrimental or severe, or unwelcome behavior that is pervasive and affects employment or academic performance, are within the parameters of sexual harassment. The key word is "unwelcome." Be very clear in addressing the perpetrator that the behavior is unwelcome, and do so in front of witnesses if possible. If you have previously had a relationship with the perpetrator, you should be vocally adamant that the behavior is no longer welcome.

In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines establishing criteria for determining when unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace constitutes sexual harassment:

  • • If acceptance or rejection of the offensive behavior is made a condition of the victim's employment;
  • • If acceptance or rejection of the offensive behavior is the basis for decisions made which affect the victim's employment; or
  • • If the offensive behavior has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

See 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11(a).

What Type of Claim Can I Make?

Tennessee law recognizes two different types of sexual harassment claims: a "quid pro quo" claim and a hostile work environment claim. The term "quid pro quo" means "something for something" and exists when a perpetrator makes employment benefits or academic achievements contingent upon the victim providing sexual favors. It is a form of sexual blackmail. A hostile work environment occurs when a perpetrator persists with unwelcome verbal comments or physical assaults to the point that it creates an uncomfortable and damaging environment. In such a scenario, the intended victim may not be the only person who is damaged. A bystander whose work environment is negatively affected by the offensive behavior can also be a victim.

Must Sexual Harassment Events Occur Inside the Workplace?

No. Sexual harassment can take place under all kinds of circumstances outside of the workplace--at office functions, on company trips, in shared transportation, on the street, on social media, etc. However, the perpetrator must have some connection with your employment, even though that individual may not be your direct supervisor, but rather a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, an agent of the employer, a company board member, a client, a customer, etc.

Are Non-Citizens Protected by Sexual Harassment Laws?

Yes. The civil rights discrimination laws apply to immigrant workers in the United States even though they are not citizens. However, pursuit of a claim may be more difficult if the foreign national does not have a work permit.

Should I Sign a Sexual Harassment Non-disclosure Agreement?

Absolutely not. Tennessee recently passed T.C.A. § 50-1-108, which states that employers are prohibited after May 15, 2018, from requiring an employee or prospective employee to execute or renew a non-disclosure agreement regarding sexual harassment in the workplace as a condition of employment.

Are Only Women Victimized by Sexual Harassment?

No. Sexual harassment is not gender specific and does not have to be between members of the opposite sex. Both men and women can be victims. Cases of same sex harassment are prevalent.

What Should I Do If I am Experiencing Sexual Harassment?

If you are able, collect evidence, copy notes and emails, document the harassment, and be specific in your details. It is important to note the time and place of each incident, what was said and done, and the names of anyone who may have witnessed the unwelcome behavior. Find out what the time limit is to file a claim with the EEOC. Consult with an experienced Nashville sexual harassment attorney who can guide you.

In an academic environment you may consider confiding in an adviser, consulting with the school's counseling center, or reporting the offense to a Title IX coordinator. If your institution has a grievance policy, it is important for you to follow the recommended procedure. It is also a good idea for you to seek legal counsel. A Cole Law Group attorney can examine your case and guide you toward the best course of action.

What Prevents Victims from Reporting Sexual Harassment?
  • They fear losing their jobs.
  • They feel ashamed.
  • They think that perhaps they are being overly sensitive.
  • They believe that victims are always women.
  • They hope that if they ignore the behavior, it will eventually go away.
  • They trust their supervisor to handle the situation.
  • They are not certain if the behavior was within the legal guidelines of sexual harassment.
What Monetary Damages Could I Collect if I File a Lawsuit?

If you were terminated, a common form of relief is Back Pay, which includes the wages and benefits that you would have received from the date of termination to a trial date. Compensatory Damages, which are awarded for pain and suffering, mental anguish, and emotional distress, are determined by the number of employees within the workplace. There are caps on the amount of compensatory or punitive damages you can collect for sexual harassment claims in Tennessee. Depending upon how severe the circumstances are surrounding your potential sexual harassment case, there may be causes of action that are limited only by tort reform caps. Therefore caps on monetary damages should always be reviewed and considered when consulting with a lawyer regarding a Tennessee sexual harassment lawsuit.

If we can help you with the serious and delicate issue of inappropriate conduct within the workplace, please call our sexual harassment attorneys in Nashville at (615) 490-6020 or send us a message via our contact page.

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