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Correctional Employee Files Claim About Pervasive Sexual Harassment

January 12th, 2021

A female employee at a state correctional institute claims she has been repeatedly sexually harassed and assaulted at work. Although she reported the incidents to both her supervisors and to the local police, no action was taken to stop the pervasive sexual harassment. This is a situation many women find themselves in, especially in traditionally male-dominated jobs, such as law enforcement. Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace can take several steps to ensure that their rights are protected.

What is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex and gender discrimination that violates both state and federal law. Despite this, workplace sexual harassment is prevalent. Employers with 15 or more employees are subject to the federal law that prohibits employment discrimination, which is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under this law, there are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when employment decisions are made based on whether an individual submits to unwelcome sexual conduct. For example, if a supervisor makes an employee’s promotion contingent upon their acceptance of the offer for a sexual favor, it constitutes quid pro quo sexual harassment.

A hostile work environment exists where the sexual harassment is so severe and pervasive that it unreasonably interferes with the employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. For example, if a female prison worker fears going to work because she is subjected to daily sexual harassment by her co-workers or inmates, she may file a hostile work environment claim.

Pennsylvania law also prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on protected characteristics, including sex. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) applies to employers with four or more employees and protects applicants, employees, and independent contractors from sexual harassment in the workplace.

Some examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Unwelcome or inappropriate touching.
  • Making lewd comments about a person’s appearance.
  • Conditioning job opportunities on sexual favors.
  • Threatening to, or engaging in, adverse action upon rejection of sexual advances.
  • Displaying sexual images in the workplace.
  • Making derogatory remarks based on gender.

Retaliation is Against the Law

Workers have a right to work in an environment free of sexual harassment and discrimination. They are also entitled to assert their rights under the state and federal anti-sexual harassment laws without being subject to retaliation. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that retaliation is both the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination and the most common discrimination finding in federal cases.

Under both Title VII and the PHRA, employers may not retaliate against applicants or employees for engaging in legally protected activities. Employees are entitled to oppose unlawful discriminatory practices without being subject to punishment by their employer. The EEOC provides guidance on what constitutes unlawful retaliation:

  • Reprimanding the employee.
  • Giving the employee an undeserved low performance evaluation.
  • Physically or verbally assaulting the employee.
  • Threatening the employee.
  • Spreading rumors about the employee.
  • Treating the employee’s family member poorly.
  • Purposefully making the employee’s job more difficult.  

It is unlawful to discriminate against an employee for filing a sexual harassment claim, being a witness in a sexual harassment lawsuit, or being involved in a sexual harassment investigation. Retaliation can occur either through direct actions, such as firing or demotion, or more indirect actions, such as being transferred to a less desirable location. Employers who violate the retaliation provision may be held liable.

How Should I Handle Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

A victim is encouraged to inform the offender that their behavior is inappropriate. If such confrontation does not put a stop to the harassment, the employee should immediately report the behavior to a supervisor or the Human Resources (HR) department to prevent escalation.

When an employee reports sexual harassment in the workplace, the employer has a legal duty to take remedial steps to end and prevent it from happening again. Employers have a legal obligation to hold other supervisors and co-workers responsible for sexually harassing employees; those who fail to investigate complaints of sexual harassment promptly or take appropriate action may be held liable.

The EEOC advises that prevention is the best tool to eliminate workplace sexual harassment. Employers should strive to create an environment in which workers feel comfortable voicing concerns and making reports. Some ways that employers can shield themselves from liability in sexual harassment claims include:

  • Having a written nondiscrimination policy, including a prohibition against sexual harassment.
  • Installing an anonymous hotline for employees to make reports.
  • Conducting regular training sessions on sexual harassment.
  • Having a designated party in charge of investigating sexual harassment complaints and an established procedure for doing so.
  • Investigating all reports of sexual harassment promptly and thoroughly.
  • Interviewing the parties to the report.
  • Taking corrective action against sexual harassers.
  • Abstaining from retaliation against an employee for exercising their rights under the law.

What are the Legal Remedies for Workplace Sexual Harassment?

If an employer does not take prompt remedial action, the victim may file a complaint with the EEOC or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), the state agency that enforces the law and investigates discrimination complaints on behalf of the EEOC. Complaints to the EEOC must generally be made within 180 days of the incident; however, the deadline is extended to 300 days if there is a state or local law prohibiting employment discrimination on the same basis, such as the PHRA. Sexual harassment charges must be filed with the PHRC within 300 days of the incident, but it is best to report harassment as soon as it is suspected.

There are various remedies available for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. It is important to keep in mind that not all instances are illegal. The EEOC advises that petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents generally do not form the basis of an actionable claim. However, if the conduct creates a work environment that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people, it may be considered to fall within the purview of the statutory definition of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Potential legal remedies for successful claimants include:

Back Pay: Employees who were denied a raise, refused a promotion, or fired due to sexual harassment may be entitled to the wages and other forms of compensation they would have received.

Reinstatement or Front Pay: If an employee lost their job due to sexual harassment, they may be entitled to reinstatement in the position. However, if this option is unsuitable, the employee may instead receive compensation for any wage loss if they are likely to suffer in the future as a result of the sexual harassment.

Compensatory Damages: Employees who suffer sexual harassment may be entitled to compensation for the emotional distress they endured, as well as any out-of-pocket costs caused by the sexual harassment.

Punitive Damages: Employers who commit especially malicious or reckless acts of sexual harassment may be subject to punitive damages, which are designed to punish wrongdoers and disincentivize future incidents.

If an employee is experiencing pervasive sexual harassment at work, they should contact a lawyer to understand their legal options.

Delaware County Sexual Harassment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Protect Employees Against Hostile Work Environments

If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, speak to one of our Delaware County sexual harassment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. For a free consultation, contact us online or call us at 215-569-1999 today. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.

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