Find the right lawyer now

Rights of Those Accused of Sexual Harassment

Find a Local Employment Lawyer near You

What Are the Rights of Those Accused of Sexual Harassment?

If you are facing allegations of sexual harassment, it is important to take them seriously and prepare your defenses.In a civil case, you have the right to present your case and should receive a fair, impartial and speedy trial. If criminal charges have been filed (which is more rare), you have additional rights. 

What is Sexual Harassment?

Federal, state, and citywide laws all prohibit sexual harassment. While the definitions may vary slightly from jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction, sexual harassment can typically be categorized as either:

  • Quid pro quo: demanding sexual favors in exchange for job stability or advancement, or
  • Hostile work environment: a workplace environment that is sexually demeaning, hostile, or intimidating.

Both men and women are victims of sexual harassment. While most sexual harassment claims are made against supervisors or co-workers, other individuals (such as subcontractors and customers) can also be liable.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal sexual harassment laws (such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts). Most (but not all) states have similar agencies that enforce state laws. 

What Should I Do If I Have Been Falsely Accused of Sexual Harassment?

The first thing you should do when accused of sexual harassment is monitor what you say. If questioned about it by a supervisor or the HR department, you should immediately request the opportunity to obtain an attorney before you discuss the allegation. The burden of proof in a sexual harassment case is on the accuser. If you have done nothing wrong, your job and assets should be safe. However, following the instructions of a skilled employment attorney is important as anything you say to co-workers, your employer, the accuser, etc. can be used against you in court. In addition, you should keep a record of all the events related to the case and allegations as you remember them. This record should be made specifically for you and your attorney alone.

If you are falsely accused of sexual harassment or rape, you may have a claim for defamation. However, unless the evidence of the false accusation is nearly indisputable, defamation actions can have large legal fees and are difficult to win.

What are the Elements of a Sexual Harassment Case?

In order to win a sexual harassment claim, the alleged victim must prove his or her “prima facie case.” In other words, the victim must prove each and every legal element of a sexual harassment claim. Otherwise, the claim will be unsuccessful. Generally, the required elements of a sexual harassment claim are:

  • The victim was a member of a protected class,
  • They were subjected to unwelcome harassment based on his or her sex or gender,
  • The harassment led to either a hostile work environment or a negative employment action (such as termination or demotion), and
  • The employer is liable for the harassment.

What Legal Defenses are There If a Person Is Accused of Sexual Harassment?

There are a series of defenses available to sexual harassment defendants. Many of these defenses involve a detailed analysis of the alleged victim’s case and the application of procedural rules. (If you need help, contact an experienced sexual harassment lawyer.) 

Post Your Case - Get Answers from Multiple Lawyers Specialize in Sexual Harassment Case

Failure to Prove the Elements of a Sexual Harassment Case

In order to win a sexual harassment claim, the alleged victim must prove his or her “prima facie case.” In other words, the victim must prove each and every legal element of a sexual harassment claim. Otherwise, the claim will be unsuccessful.

Generally, the required elements of a sexual harassment claim are:

  • The victim was a member of a protected class,
  • He or she was subjected to unwelcome harassment based on his or her sex or gender,
  • The harassment led to either a hostile work environment or a negative employment action (such as termination or demotion), and
  • The employer is liable for the harassment.

As part of your defense, you should evaluate the alleged victim’s claim and arguments. If he or she does not have evidence supporting a required element of sexual harassment, you can use this as a defense.

For example, in a federal sexual harassment claim involving a co-worker (rather than a supervisor or other business leader), the victim must show that he or she reported the offensive behaviors to management and the company failed to stop the harassment. If the victim never complained about harassment, the employer is not liable.

And, a single offensive act is rarely enough to win a sexual harassment case (unless the harassing behavior is incredibly offensive or harmful). Instead, alleged victims typically must prove a pattern of harmful and offensive behaviors.

Finally, innocence is always a defense in a sexual harassment claim. If the alleged victim’s claims are false, they should be dismissed.

Failure to Meet Procedural Requirements

In addition to meeting the legal requirements of a sexual harassment claim, the alleged victim must also follow a series of strict procedural and administrative rules. Noncompliance with these rules will result in a case’s dismissal.

In most sexual harassment cases, the victim must:

  • File an administrative complaint with the EEOC or a similar state agency,
  • Participate in an agency investigation of the claim, and
  • Wait until the agency issues a “Right to Sue” letter before filing a lawsuit.

If a lawsuit is filed before the victim receives a “Right to Sue” letter, the claim will typically be dismissed.

Additionally, each of these steps involves strict time limits. If one of these deadlines is missed, the case cannot go forward. In federal sexual harassment cases, the victim must file an EEOC complaint (or charge) within either 180 or 300 days of the harassment. Once the EEOC issues a “Right to Sue” letter, a federal lawsuit must be filed within 90 days.

State laws vary dramatically. If you need help understanding your state’s procedural requirements, contact a lawyer.

Criminal Defenses

In a criminal case, you may have other defenses. For example, most criminal charges require proof that your actions were intentional. And, criminal sexual harassment cases require a higher burden of proof. The government and victim must prove every element of their case beyond a reasonable doubt. If they cannot do this, the court cannot issue a guilty verdict.

What Will Not Work as a Defense to Sexual Harassment?

However, you typically cannot present the following arguments as a defense:

  • The victim and the harasser were the same sex,
  • The harassment was based on inaccurate assumptions about the victim’s gender or sexual orientation, and
  • The victim had a history of sexual promiscuity (in most cases)

Remember, every case is different. Do not assume that every defense is available in your case. Instead, you must analyze the facts and law that apply in your situation.

What Happens if a Person Files a False Accusation of Harassment?

A person who is found to be filing a false sexual harassment claim may be subject to legal penalties. These can include court fines, a contempt order, or sometimes even criminal charges. Also, falsely accusing another person of harassment can sometimes lead to a slander lawsuit, especially if the accused person has had their reputation damaged by the false accusation. Perjury charges can also result if the person lied during a trial proceeding. Courts generally discourage plaintiffs from filing false and frivolous lawsuits in general. However, false harassment claims in particular may be associated with strict legal consequences, such as:

  • A contempt order from the court
  • Civil or criminal fines
  • A counter-lawsuit for defamation by the person being accused
  • Termination of employment 

Can I Obtain Damages if I’ve Suffered Losses Due to a False Claim?

If you have had a false harassment claim filed against you, it may be possible for you to obtain a damages award for losses. These can include losses like:

  • Lost wages
  • Termination from a job position
  • Damage to reputation (defamation or slander)

It’s illegal for employer to fire a worker who has filed a claim for sexual harassment. However, if the employee filed a false claim for sexual harassment, then they can face termination.

Do I Need a Defense Lawyer?

Sexual harassment law involves a complicated legal and factual analysis. Without the help of a skilled employment lawyer (or a criminal defense lawyer), you may miss important defenses. If an EEOC charge or sexual harassment lawsuit is filed against you, it is in your best interest to hire a lawyer immediately.

Photo of page author Leigh Ebrom

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 10-05-2017 03:29 PM PDT

Law Library Disclaimer
  • No fee to present your case
  • Choose from lawyers in your area
  • A 100% confidential service
What is LegalMatch?

We've helped more than 4 million clients find the right lawyer – for free. Present your case online in minutes. LegalMatch matches you to pre-screened lawyers in your city or county based on the specifics of your case. Within 24 hours experienced local lawyers review it and evaluate if you have a solid case. If so, attorneys respond with an offer to represent you that includes a full attorney profile with details on their fee structure, background, and ratings by other LegalMatch users so you can decide if they're the right lawyer for you.