Everywhere I’ve looked this week, I’ve seen stories about sexual harassment. Still, sexual harassment law isn’t understood as well as it should be. That’s why I’m writing this article. Hopefully it will help you understand the basics of sexual harassment law in Colorado and the US.
What Law Governs Sexual Harassment Claims in Colorado?
Both Colorado and Federal law forbids sexual harassment. The Colorado Anti Discrimination Act (C.R.S. 24-34-402) makes it illegal under state law, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. 2000e) makes it illegal federally.
What is Sexual Harassment?
There are two types of sexual harassment claim: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment.
Quid pro quo harassment happens when an employee submits to sexual advances in return for a job benefit or is punished for rejecting those advances. The classic example is a supervisor firing an employee for refusing to go on a date with him.Unfulfilled threats to punish an employee unless she submits to sexual advances are not quid pro quo harassment. But, such threats can contribute to a hostile work environment claim.
Hostile work environment harassment happens when a employee’s work life is miserable because of sexual comments, jokes, bullying,or touching. In legal terms, a female employee must prove (1) she was subject to unwelcome harassment, (2) the harassment was based on her sex, (3) the harassment was bad enough to affect the conditions of her employment and create an abusive environment, and (4) the employer knew or should have known about the harassment but failed to stop it. It’s not just supervisors who can create the hostile environment. If a company knows that customers, contractors, or coworkers are creating a hostile work environment, the company is liable.
Keep in mind, if you tell someone to stop touching you in a sexual way and they keep doing it, it’s not just sexual harassment. That person is committing the crime of unlawful sexual contact. You don’t have to put up with it.
Who Can Make a Sexual Harassment Claim?
Under federal law, only employees of companies with more than 15 employees are covered by Title VII. So, you have to be an employee of a fairly large company to file a claim. Under Colorado law, however, any employee can file a harassment claim.
I should note, in this article, I refer to women as the victims of harassment because that is usually the way it happens. But the law is no different if a man is the victim. Men can and are sexually harassed, and when that happens, the same law applies.
What Damages are Available in a Sexual Harassment Case?
This is where the difference between Colorado and Federal law comes in. Under the Colorado Anti Discrimination Act, you can only recover lost wages and reinstatement to your previous job. You cannot receive damages for other harms caused by the harassment. This is unfair to employees because often sexual harassment puts employees under massive stress. They lose sleep, their relationships suffer, and they deserve compensation for that.
In federal court, victims of sexual harassment can also recover damages. These can be compensatory (meaning they pay the employee back for what she’s lost) or punitive (meaning they punish the employer). These damages aren’t unlimited though. For an employer with between 15 and 100 employees, the maximum damages award is $50,000. For an employer with 500 or more employees, the max is $300,000.
There is good news on the horizon for Coloradans though. The changes to the Colorado Anti Discrimination Act mentioned above also changes the damages allowed. In January 2015, employees will be entitled to receive compensatory and punitive damages in addition to back wages and reinstatement. The federal damage caps still apply, but it’s a big step in the right direction.