Nashville Bar Association
Tennessee Bar Association
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Vanderbilt Law School

Sexual Harassment

Federal and Tennessee law make it unlawful for employers to discriminate against any individual on the basis of sex. Sexual harassment is one of the most common and difficult workplace situations to navigate, especially when the harasser is your boss. You want to report the misconduct but you are afraid of being fired or otherwise retaliated against. You need to know what actions to take to stop the harassment while protecting your job and legal rights.

Sexual harassment often includes one or more of the following types of unwelcome behavior by a supervisor or co-worker:

  • Physical touching
  • Frequent comments about your appearance/attractiveness
  • Sexually explicit text messages or e-mails
  • Sexual “jokes” or innuendos
  • Persistent leering or staring
  • Displaying sexual materials
  • Solicitation of explicit pictures
  • Repeated requests for a romantic date

There are two types of sexual harassment claims:

1. Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Quid pro quo (“this for that”) sexual harassment occurs when your job – including performance reviews, raises, and advancement opportunities – is conditioned on your submission to unwelcome sexual advances. In other words, your boss attempts to get sexual favors in exchange for your career advancement. If you do not submit, your career suffers.

To establish a prima facie case of quid pro quo sexual harassment, you must show that:

  1. you are a member of a protected class;
  2. you were subjected to an unwelcome sexual harassment in the form of sexual advances or requests for sexual favors;
  3. the harassment complained of was based on sex;
  4. your submission to the unwelcome advances was an express or implied condition for receiving job benefits or your refusal to submit to your supervisor’s sexual demands resulted in a tangible job detriment; and
  5. the existence of employer/respondeat superior liability.
2. Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

“Hostile work environment” sexual harassment occurs when an employee is subjected to unwelcome sexual advances, touching, or crude sexual language that is so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person in your position would consider your work environment intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

To establish a prima facie case of a sexually hostile work environment, the plaintiff must show:

  1. she is a member of a protected class;
  2. she was subjected to unwelcomed sexual harassment;
  3. the harassment was based on the employee’s sex;
  4. the harassment created an objectively and subjectively hostile work environment; and
  5. the employer failed to take reasonable care to prevent or correct any sexually harassing behavior.

An employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination, demotion, or denial of a pay raise. Courts assess many factors in determining whether or not you experienced a legally “hostile work environment,” including:

  • Frequency of the discriminatory conduct
  • Severity of the harassment
  • Whether it was physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance
  • Whether it unreasonably interferences with an employee’s work performance

If you are being subjected to unwelcome sexual overtures, touching or comments at work from your boss or a coworker, contact a Nashville employment lawyer for a free and confidential legal consultation at 615-823-1737 or curt@maskerfirm.com.

How Much Money is a Tennessee Sexual Harassment Case Worth?

The value of a given case varies significantly based on many factors, most of which are outside of your control, including the severity of the discrimination, how much money you have lost in earnings and benefits (if terminated), the type and quality of evidence, whether or not you reported the discrimination, and if the harasser or company have discriminated against people in the past.

But there are four general categories of damages in discrimination cases:

  1. Lost wages and benefits (your former weekly earnings + value of employer-paid benefits x the number of weeks you have been out of work)
  2. Compensatory (emotional pain and suffering resulting from the discrimination)
  3. Punitive (to punish and deter the employer for its discriminatory acts in especially bad cases)
  4. Attorney’s fees and expenses if you go to trial and win

Note that compensatory and punitive damages are capped under federal and Tennessee law based on the size of the company.

Statute of Limitations for Sexual Harassment Claims in Tennessee

Sexual harassment claims have strict deadlines called statute of limitations. If you miss this deadline then you will be barred from going to court. If you may have claims do not wait, contact an employment lawyer right away to know your deadlines.

To preserve your federal law sexual harassment claims in Tennessee, you must file a charge of discrimination (EEOC Form 5) with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 300 days of the date you were harassed or harmed. Just calling the EEOC and talking to someone does not constitute filing.

The only way to preserve your state law sexual harassment claims in Tennessee is to file suit. You may choose to file with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission (THRC) within 180 days of the date you were harassed or harmed, but filing with the THRC does not toll (pause) the one-year statute of limitations. If you file a civil lawsuit in Tennessee Chancery or Circuit court, then pursuant to state law, the THRC must administratively close its investigation of your complaint.

For cases involving state and federal claims, you must file with the EEOC for the federal claims while being mindful of the one-year deadline for the state claims. If the investigation has not concluded and the state deadline is approaching, your attorney will likely request that the Right to Sue letter be issued (this request may be submitted only after at least 180 days have passed since you submitted your charge).

If you have been or are being subjected to unwelcome sexual overtures, touching or comments at work from your boss or a coworker, contact The Masker Firm immediately for a free and confidential legal consultation.

If you have suffered from workplace sexual harassment, contact an employment lawyer serving Nashville at 615-823-1737 or curt@maskerfirm.com.

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Curt was very responsive from the beginning. He made it a very easy process, and he provided excellent guidance in the review of my severance agreement. Due, in part, to Curt's thoughtful suggestions in regards to changing some key language in the agreement that would protect both me and my former employer, they agreed to the changes. To protect yourself during job transition, a review of a severance agreement is a smart thing to do, and Curt will do an excellent job on your behalf. Thomas
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