If you are considering a lawsuit against your employer for workplace harassment, you should know what remedies may be available: what the court can order your employer to do if you win the lawsuit. Some remedies (called "damages") are financial. For example, your employer can be required to pay you wages you lost due to harassment. Other remedies are "injunctive," which means the employer is required to take some action, such as providing harassment training.
What Is Harassment?
Harassment is a type of discrimination. Legally speaking, harassment occurs when an employee is subjected to offensive and unwelcome conduct, based on the victim's protected characteristic (such as race or sex), that is severe or pervasive enough to affect the term or conditions of employment. Harassment can take many forms, from X-rated jokes and email messages to cruel comments about an employee's disability, bigoted or racist email messages, pornographic pictures posted at work, and even physical assault. To learn more about what constitutes harassment, see How to Prove Harassment in the Workplace.
Protecting Your Rights
If you are facing workplace harassment, there are certain steps you can take to protect your rights:
- Report the harassment according to your company's complaint procedure. Complaining about harassment gives your company an opportunity to fix the problem. From a legal perspective, filing an internal complaint ensures that the company is on notice of your situation -- and will be legally responsible for any harassment you suffer afterwards. (To learn more, see Reporting Harassment to the HR Department.)
- File a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If you aren't satisfied with your company's response, you should file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or your state's fair employment practices agency. The EEOC or state agency will notify the employer of your charge, investigate, and perhaps try to mediate a settlement. This may resolve the problem; it's also a required step if you want to file a lawsuit. You may not sue your employer unless you have first filed an administrative charge.
- File a lawsuit. Once the EEOC finishes processing your charge, it will issue you a right to sue letter. (For more information, see Right to Sue Letter From the EEOC.) Once you receive this letter, you have only 90 days to file a harassment lawsuit. If you miss the deadline, you won't be able to sue.
Remedies for Harassment
If you win a harassment lawsuit against your employer, the remedies are the same as in discrimination cases. They might include:
- back pay, such as wages you lost while you were out on leave due to harassment or a raise you didn't get because you refused to date your boss
- out of pocket losses, such as the cost of therapy or expenses associated with hunting for a new job
- front pay, to compensate you for money lost from the date of the court judgment going forward (for example, if the company is ordered to reinstate you but can't do so for a month or two)
- court costs
- attorney fees
- injunctive relief, such as an order that your employer provide harassment training or adopt a complaint and investigation policy
- damages for pain and suffering (also called emotional distress damages or compensatory damages)
- punitive damages, intended to punish the employer for egregious behavior.
If you file your lawsuit under Title VII, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion, these last two categories of damages are subject to a cap of $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the size of the employer. Combined, punitive and compensatory damages cannot exceed the cap.
Talk to a Lawyer
If you are considering a harassment lawsuit, you should consult with an experienced employment lawyer right away. As you can see, there are certain steps you must take to protect your rights -- and time limits you have to meet. A lawyer can help you decide the best way to proceed.