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Sexual Harassment

Most are probably aware that state and federal law bars sexual harassment against an employee (or even a job applicant) by an employer, employment agency or labor organization.  The federal law applies to any employer with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Legal rules recognize two distinct types of sexual harassment.  In quid pro quo (Latin for “this for that”) cases, the sexual harassment is directly linked to the employment or is the reason for an employment decision affected the individual. In such case, a supervisor might condition employment or promotions or other benefits on providing sex or sexual favors.

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In hostile environment cases, the unwelcome and inappropriate behavior, whether sexual or simply based on gender, makes the workplace environment hostile or offensive.  For example, an employer’s unwelcome sexual advances or other sexual requests may create a hostile environment even if the employer does not link compliance with the sexual advances with a job-related benefit, such as a promotion.  Unwelcome sexual touching, pornography, and offensive questions or jokes can constitute sexual harassment.  Further, unwelcome sexual remarks, including lewd, obscene and vulgar remarks, if pervasive, may create an unwelcome environment.  The remarks need not be sexual in nature; thus, offensive remarks about women in general can create a hostile work environment.  Thus, a supervisor’s repeated comments that a job is not appropriate for a woman could constitute sexual harassment.

Sexual Harassment Cases

The law does not apply to isolated acts, provided the acts are not serious.  Thus, in most cases a supervisor making one obscene comment would not be sufficient to state a claim for sexual harassment.  However, if the obscene comments are pervasive and create a hostile environment for the employee, the employee would have a sexual harassment claim.

Both the victim and the harasser can be either male or female, and the victim and harasser can be of the same sex as well as of different genders.

The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a co-worker, or even someone who is not an employee of the employer, such a client or customer.

The victim can also be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.  Thus, if a supervisor gives benefits, such as promotions, to women who sleep with him, other employees may have claims for sexual harassment.

The law does not bar dating in the workplace; welcome sexual advances, thus, do not fall under the sex discrimination laws, provided that there are no disadvantages to other employees.  Because welcome sexual conduct is permissible, it is useful for the victim to tell the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome and request that the conduct be stopped.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing employment discrimination laws.  Individuals must first file their complaints directly with the EEOC or, if the state or locality has working-sharing agreement with the EEOC, with a state or local fair employment agency.

For example of a recent sexual harassment case, in May 2013, a jury awarded a verdict of more than $1.5 million for sexual harassment and retaliation in a case brought by the EEOC.  In the New Breed Logistics case, the jury found that the company’s warehouse supervisor had harassed three temporary
employees with unwelcome sexual touching and lewd, obscene, and vulgar sexual comments and then fired them when they complained about being harassed.  The supervisor also retaliated against a male employee who disagreed with the harassment and agreed to be a witness for the employees who were harassed.   The damages included back pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages.

Because of the complex legal issues involved in these matters, it is critical to speak with an experienced attorney for guidance if you may have a Florida sexual harassment claim.