Do I need an attorney to file a charge with the EEOC?

Question

I work for a big construction firm, and I'm often the only woman on a job site. A couple of the guys I work with have been making really gross sexual comments around me and calling me names. I joked with them about it for a while, but they kept getting worse. Finally, I told them they were bothering me and asked them to stop. Well, they didn't stop. In fact, the comments are worse than ever, and one coworker is now trying to grope me when we work near each other. I told our manager about it, and he said the company would look into it. But nothing has happened. Now I'm anxious about going to work. I want to go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and complain, but I'm not sure how it works. Will I need a lawyer or can I do it myself?

Answer

You don't have to hire a lawyer to file a charge of harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In your case, however, it’s probably a good idea to at least talk to a lawyer before moving forward.

It sounds like you've done everything you should to protect your rights so far. You've told your coworkers that their comments and actions are bothering you, and you've asked them to stop. You've complained within your company, which will protect your right later to hold the company -- and not just your coworkers -- legally responsible for your harassment. And, you've correctly identified the next step, which is filing a charge with the EEOC or a state fair employment practices agency.

If you want to file a lawsuit against your employer for harassment, you have to file a charge with the EEOC or a state agency first. To file a charge, you must tell the EEOC or state agency some basic facts, including your name, the name of your employer, what happened, the dates of each incident, and so on. At the EEOC, you can do this in person or by mail, but your state agency may follow different procedures. A representative of the agency will likely ask you some questions. Then, your information will be put on a charge form for you to sign.

Typically, the agency will contact your employer for a response to your allegations. It may investigate your claims, ask your employer to provide information and documents, and/or try to mediate a settlement. If the agency doesn't succeed in resolving your claims, it will almost certainly issue you a "right-to-sue" letter, stating that you have met the requirement of filing a charge and may file a lawsuit against your employer.

Although the EEOC tries to investigate claims within 180 days, the process often takes much longer due to budget constraints. To speed things up, you can request an immediate right-to-sue letter so that you can file a lawsuit in court.

You can go through this entire process without a lawyer, if you wish. However, an experienced employment lawyer can offer you a lot of help and advice throughout the process, which can be crucial if you later decide to file a lawsuit. For example, your official EEOC charge, your company's investigation, the EEOC's investigation, and more could all be used as evidence in court. A lawyer can help you make sure you are covering your bases and making a complete and accurate record.

In addition, there are very tight timelines for taking action in a harassment case. Once you receive a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, for instance, you have only 90 days to file a lawsuit in federal court. A lawyer can make sure you meet these deadlines. And, a lawyer can try to settle your claims quickly, for as much money as possible, which might allow you to avoid the legal process altogether.

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