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The Legal Recourse For Victims Of Sexual Harassment


The flood of allegations of sexual harassment against powerful men continued this week. There have been consequences for many. Matt Lauer was fired from NBC. Public radio severed ties with Garrison Keillor. Russell Simmons resigned from his company. That was all in the past few days. NPR's senior vice president for news, Mike Oreskes, had to resign.

Could there be legal consequences for any of their behavior and for the companies and institutions where they worked? Jean Hyams is a California civil rights attorney. She's represented women in sexual harassment cases. She joins us from Berkeley, Calif. And we want to tell our audience this conversation will have some adult material. Thank you for being with us.

JEAN HYAMS: It's a pleasure to join you.

SIMON: We have learned all over again in the past few weeks how difficult it is for women to sometimes come forward and speak up not just because of a company's culture but because of our culture in America. Does it make it difficult to prosecute those cases or seek relief in civil penalties if the statute of limitations has expired?

HYAMS: The statute of limitations is a real problem around the country. How long you have to bring a claim for sexual harassment really depends on where you live. Even under federal law, there's no uniform time limit around the country. In some states, you have only 180 days to file a claim with the EEOC - the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That's less than six months. For someone who is dealing with the trauma of an experience of sexual harassment, it takes time to get together the courage, you know, the support around you and the resources to step forward and understand your rights and assert them. So it does cut women off.

SIMON: Yeah. And how often can the companies be held responsible as much as the individual perpetrator?

HYAMS: Well, companies are responsible for creating workplaces that are safe and where people can focus on their work and not the kinds of demeaning and degrading things that happen - not to mention the assaults that happen in terms of sexual harassment. So anyone in the workplace can perpetrate sexual harassment. And employers can be accountable for it, whoever it is. I'm talking about not just supervisors but co-workers, customers, vendors - anyone who comes into contact with employees and engages in sexual harassment.

The employer can be held accountable. In the case of supervisors, if it's your supervisor who's sexually harassing you, your employer is liable for that. In many states, if any supervisor is sexually harassing you, your employer is liable. Beyond that, as long as the employer knows or should have known what was going on in the workplace, the employer can also be held liable.

SIMON: Ms. Hyams, recognizing that you - for a lot of different reasons, you might not be able to be real specific - but all the cases that have gotten press attention this week - do you see any circumstance in there where a lot of the women who've come forward, sometimes years after the fact, might be able to have some legal recourse now?

HYAMS: When the time limit has run, the time limit has run. It's a pretty draconian measure. What I'm looking for at this moment, and I think what all of these women who are stepping forward are looking for, is more than legal recourse. It's time for a cultural reckoning. It's time for change in the workplace. It's time for employers to step forward and change what is happening in American workplaces.

I hope that every woman who's experienced sexual harassment reaches out and finds out whether or not she has legal recourse. There are attorneys all around the country who do this kind of work every day, and you don't necessarily have to have already decided that you're ready to bring a lawsuit to find out what your rights are. And rights only exist if you know what they are, and you assert them.

So the timing of sexual harassment and lawsuits is complicated. There can sometimes be ways to work around statutes of limitations. So I would encourage anyone who thinks that they might still have a claim to reach out to an attorney and find out.

SIMON: Jean Hyams is an attorney in California. Thanks so much for being with us.

HYAMS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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