It was 20 years ago this month that Anita Hill testified against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas regarding sexual harassment. Her accusations were part of testimony subpoenaed during a Senate investigation into Clarence Thomas. At the time of the alleged harassment, Clarence Thomas was her boss at the U.S. Department of Education and, ironically, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Ms. Hill’s disappointment in Clarence Thomas eventually being confirmed by the Supreme Court was in part a result of feeling “…they didn’t understand the relevance of my testimony to Thomas’ respect for the law. He did these things while he was in charge of enforcing sexual harassment laws.”
But the confirmation of Clarence Thomas did not stop Ms. Hill’s testimony from positively affecting sexual harassment. In 1980, only one sexual harassment complaint was filed with the EEOC. After Ms. Hill’s testimony in 1991, 6870 complaints were filed. That number almost doubled again in 1992, and the complaints continued to increase for years, only tapering off more recently. What was once a subject too embarrassing to discuss became common conversation in workplaces across the nation. Women who previously kept quiet for fear of losing their jobs or other retaliation began seeking justice.
Sexual harassment was included in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees from discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. Years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed, strengthening sexual harassment and all other discrimination laws by allowing a complainant to seek emotional distress damages and have a jury trial.
What constitutes sexual harassment? The EEOC website says:
“Harassment can include ‘sexual harassment’ or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”
If sexual harassment has occurred, there are several types of damages that can be awarded. Lost wages, medical bills, and compensation for emotional distress are typical damages in any discrimination or harassment case. Attorneys’ fees can be recovered, and the plaintiff may be entitled to pre-judgment interest on lost wages, which can be a substantial amount if her salary was high and the case does not go to trial right away. If the harassment was particularly harsh or malicious, punitive damages may be awarded as well.
Not all bad behavior by employers or co-workers constitutes sexual harassment. A boss who is rude and overbearing may be challenging to work with and annoying, but if he acts this way toward all of his employees, there may not be a harassment case, just a serious character flaw. If someone is singled out because of his or her sex, the victim may be eligible for compensation. It is important to contact an employment law firm such as Miller & Falkner to determine if your case is valid.
Anita Hill: 20 Years of “Reimagine;” The Courier-Journal; Cassandra Spratling; October 18, 2011
Sexual Harassment; U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission