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Focus on the Law: Sexual Harrassment

By Sharon Frankenberg,

Attorney at Law

Almost five decades ago, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VII of that act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.  Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII.  According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. This law also applies to employment agencies, labor organizations and the federal government.  Sexual harassment may occur where the harasser’s conduct is unwelcome.  Sexual harassment can occur whether the victim is a man or a woman.  The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.  The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.  The harasser can by the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.

Sexual harassment is a violation of Title VII when submission to unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature is a term or condition of your employment.  For example, if a male supervisor threatens to fire a subordinate if she refuses to perform a sex act with him then that subordinate is the victim of sexual harassment.  The types of conduct constituting sexual harassment may include using sexually provocative language and other verbal abuse of an explicit or implied sexual nature, making advances of a sexual nature, sexual propositions and physical touching.

Title VII is administered by the EEOC and victims of sexual harassment should file a written complaint with that agency as soon as possible.  The complaint will be investigated and the EEOC will try to secure a settlement or file a civil lawsuit on your behalf.  If the EEOC has not resolved the matter or filed suit within six months, you may request a notice of your right to sue.  It is best to have hired a lawyer to take your case before you make this request because you will only have ninety days to file suit against your employer once you receive your notice of right-to-sue letter.

The State of Tennessee also has a counterpart to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 called the Tennessee Human Rights Act.  Enforcement of this act lies with the Employment Division of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission (THRC) in Nashville.  This agency processes and investigates complaints of sexual harassment among other kinds of discrimination.  Unlike under Title VII, this Tennessee law permits employees to file a lawsuit in chancery court without having to go through the THRC’s administrative process first.  Complaints may be still be filed with the THRC but they must be filed within 180 days of the alleged act of discrimination.  The THRC investigates the complaint, conducts interviews and attempts conciliation.   Neither federal law nor state law provides for the recovery of punitive damages.

If you believe you are a victim of sexual harassment, you should contact an attorney to give advice regarding your specific circumstances and to ensure that your rights to compensation are protected.

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