If you have been a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, you may be entitled to compensation. You may have a claim for sexual harassment if you’ve been subjected to unwelcome sexual advances, comments or actions of a sexual nature, or offensive comments about your gender at work. (For more information, see our article on sexual harassment.)
If you are successful in your sexual harassment claim, the amount you can get in financial compensation (called “damages”) depends on what sort of harm you’ve suffered because of the sexual harassment. Some types of damages, including back pay and front pay, are designed to compensate you for wages that you lost as a result of being sexually harassed. Other types of damages are intended to compensate you for the emotional upset caused by the harassment (called “pain and suffering”) or to punish your employer for failing to put a stop to the harassment (called “punitive damages”).
If you were denied a raise, refused a promotion, or fired as a result of sexual harassment, you may be entitled to back pay. Back pay is the wages, benefits, and other compensation you would have earned from the time of the negative employment decision up to the date of a jury award (called a “judgment”). Back pay includes:
In general, federal law limits back pay to two years from the time you file your lawsuit. However, your state’s laws may allow you to collect back pay for a longer period of time.
Back pay can also be reduced if you fail to “mitigate” your damages, meaning that you didn’t make sufficient efforts to minimize your financial loss. Under federal and state law, you’re required to make a good faith effort to look for another job in order to reduce your wage loss. If you make a good faith effort but are unable to find a new job, you will be entitled to the full amount of your lost wages. If, however, you are able to find another job, your back pay award will be reduced by the amount of your new earnings. For example, if you make $20,000 less at your new job than at your old job, you will receive that amount in back pay.
Under federal law, if you lost your job or had to quit because of sexual harassment, you may have the right to return you to your former position (this is called “reinstatement”). However, often times reinstatement is impossible or impractical. For example, the position may not be available anymore, or your working relationship with your former employer may have become too hostile for you to return. If this is the case, you may be eligible for an award of front pay instead of reinstatement. Front pay is intended to compensate you for any wage loss you are likely to suffer from the date of your judgment into the future.
To determine how far into the future you’ll receive front pay, a court will consider
When deciding how much front pay to award, a jury will try to determine how long you would have stayed in your position (if not for the sexual harassment) and how long it will take you to find a similar job. For example, a jury may find that you would have stayed at your job for another two years because of your age and the low turnover at your employer’s workplace. But, based on your skill set and the job market, the jury believes you will be able to find a new job at the same pay in six months. In that case, you will be awarded front pay for six months. Just like with back pay, you are required to make a good faith effort to “mitigate” your damages in order to receive front pay.
Regardless of whether you have lost any wages, you may be entitled to recover compensatory damages or punitive damages. Compensatory damages include compensation for the emotional distress you have suffered (sometimes called “pain and suffering”), any harm to your reputation, and any out-of-pocket costs caused by the harassment, such as medical bills and job search costs.
A court may also award punitive damages in an effort to punish the employer for particularly bad behavior. Punitive damages are available if your employer was aware of the harassment but didn’t take any steps to correct the situation. This usually means that human resources or someone in upper management knew what was happening to you and failed to do anything about it, despite knowing that it might be illegal sexual harassment under the law.
Federal law places limits on how much you can be awarded in compensatory and punitive damages, depending on how big your employer is. The most you can be awarded depends on the number of employees in the company:
Your state’s laws may have different limits than federal law (or no limits at all), so you may be able to recover more in compensatory and punitive damages if you file a state claim. A lawyer can help you decide what claims are most advantageous to you.
If you win your sexual harassment case, you will be entitled to attorneys’ fees and the costs of the suit, such as filing fees. A court will likely require your attorney to provide a statement of his or her fees to make sure the fees are reasonable.
If you believe you’ve been sexually harassed, you should consult with a lawyer as soon as possible. A lawyer will be able to evaluate your case and advise you of your options. There are strict time limits for filing a sexual harassment action, so you should not delay in seeking legal advice. See Nolo’s lawyer directory for a list of attorneys in your area.