Sexual Harassment Legal Information


Sexual harassment lawyers specialize in an area of employment law that prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual advances. For that reason, sexual harassment lawyers are almost always litigators -- lawyers who file lawsuits on behalf of sexually harassed clients. They may also help employers learn about and avoid behaviors that would be illegal sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment, in brief, is any sort of unwelcome sexual advance or sexual conduct that makes the victim’s job more difficult or less pleasant. Roughly, there are two types of sexual harassment:

  1. In quid pro quo harassment, the way the victim reacts to sexual advances is tied to his or her terms and conditions of employment. An example could be a supervisor who promises a pay raise (or threatens a pay cut) in exchange for sexual favors. This is not always explicit.
  2. In hostile work environment harassment, unwelcome sexual conduct or advances unreasonably interfere with the victim’s job or create a hostile, offensive or intimidating work environment. This type of harassment doesn’t necessarily result in a loss of pay or work status. An example could be attempts to drive out a firehouse’s first female employee with vulgar graffiti on her locker, loud and explicitly sexual jokes told in her presence and destruction of her belongings.



In order to prove sexual harassment, victims must show that there were sexual advances or other sexual conduct; it was unwelcome; the employer knew or should have known about it, and:

  • it explicitly or implicitly affects the victim’s employment,
  • it unreasonably interferes with the victim’s work performance,
  • it creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

Courts have found that employers should know about sexual harassment when the harassment takes place openly or is well-known by employees; if there was a complaint; or if it has failed to put a sexual harassment policy in place. Victims can strengthen their cases by complaining in writing to their supervisors and keeping a copy of the complaint.



Sexual harassment is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law prohibits a wide variety of discriminatory practices that are based on sex. Subsequent court cases and interpretation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission helped make sexual harassment an explicitly forbidden act under that law. Sexual harassment has been explicitly forbidden by federal law since at least 1980.

Because private employers with fewer than 15 employees are exempt from Title VII, they may not be subject to sexual harassment lawsuits. However, many states also have anti-discrimination laws that may be broader. For example, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits harassment by businesses that employ more than one person. You can talk to a sexual harassment lawyer to find out what laws apply in your state.



Title VII doesn’t specify a gender or a power relationship; it applies to all covered employees and employers. Both men and women can be sexual harassers or victims. Sexual harassment can be committed by people of the same gender as the victim as well as those of the opposite gender. Similarly, there does not have to be an official inferior-superior relationship between the harasser and his or her victim. Harassment can be committed by co-workers and contractors as well as supervisors, and people who are not direct victims can file harassment complaints. Some courts have even found that an employer is legally liable for failing to stop sexual harassment by a customer.

Many people don’t realize that sexual harassment is also common, and illegal, in schools. The law prohibiting sexual harassment applies to conduct between students; between students and teachers; and between colleagues. Statistically, the harassment is most often between students and is often dismissed as bullying. But if it unreasonably interferes with a student’s ability to come to school and learn, the school can be legally liable for failing to stop sexual harassment.



Retaliation is the legal name for a broad range of negative actions an employer might take to punish an employee who complains of sexual harassment. This is usually not made explicit. In most cases of retaliation, an employee who reports sexual harassment finds that no action is taken against the harasser, but begins to experience negative consequences within a short period of time. Those who support a complaining employee might also be subject to retaliation.

Retaliation might take the form of:

  • Firing.
  • Demotion.
  • Suspension.
  • Loss of pay or loss of overtime.
  • Being asked to resign.
  • A change to less desirable job duties.
  • A transfer to another geographic area.
  • Being ostracized or harassed by co-workers.

Retaliation is explicitly illegal under the Civil Rights Act. Because employers don’t usually attribute their retaliation to your complaints, victims will most likely have to prove the connection between their complaints and the retaliation with circumstantial evidence. But because retaliation is a separate complaint from the harassment itself, being able to prove it can strengthen a victim’s case.



For many victims, being able to air their grievances and stop future harassment is the most important reason to file a sexual harassment lawsuit. However, victims can also recover wages and benefits they lost because of the harassment -- which can be significant. Types of damages you can recover in a sexual harassment lawsuit include:

  • Past and future lost wages.
  • Past and future lost benefits.
  • General damages for things like physical injuries and emotional pain and suffering.
  • Punitive damages, which are payments meant to punish an employer for very bad behavior.
  • Attorney fees and costs.

Future wages and benefits aren’t usually awarded for the rest of the victim’s life. Because being fired for illegal reasons can make it hard to find another job, courts are willing to award future lost wages until the victim does find employment.



Sexual harassment lawyers are most often paid by the hour. Those hourly rates will vary widely, depending on your case, the attorney, and the area where you live. The sexual harassment lawyer should tell you his or her rate before you start your case.

In some cases, sexual harassment lawyers work for attorney fees, a type of contingency fee, in which they don’t get paid unless and until you win your case. If you do win, the court will award the lawyer an amount of fees deemed reasonable. If you don’t, they get paid nothing at all. This arrangement allows sexual harassment lawyers to represent people who cannot afford hourly legal fees.

Sometimes, you may be able to pursue a claim through a federal government agency called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You will have to file paperwork with the agency within a strict time limit, and it will do an investigation and try to mediate the dispute between you and the employer. Only after these remedies fail will it file a federal lawsuit, and it may still choose not to file if it feels your case is not strong. You will not be asked to pay the EEOC, but because its processes take so long and it may not take your case, it may not be the best way to pursue your case.