Sexual harassment is all too common in the workplace, but thankfully, both federal and Missouri law provide remedies for victims. To understand whether an employer can be held accountable for a customer’s behavior requires knowing what the law considers to be sexual harassment, what employer responsibilities are, and then evaluating the employer’s behavior. Read on to learn more, and contact your Jackson County, Missouri sexual harassment lawyer for more specifics relative to your unique situation.
Understanding Sexual Harassment Law
Definitions and Protections Under Federal Law
Sexual harassment as defined by federal law includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with their work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
This definition is broad and includes harassment by anyone in the workplace, including supervisors, co-workers, and customers. Under federal law, an employer can be held responsible for harassment by non-employees if they have control over the workplace and fail to take reasonable steps to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior.
What About The Missouri Human Rights Act?
The Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) extends similar protections to employees as those offered under federal law and includes prohibitions against harassment based on gender, pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The MHRA is applicable to employers with six or more employees and casts a wider net by addressing discrimination not only in the workplace but also in housing, lending, and other areas involving the general public.
Employer Liability for Harassment by Non-Employees
The EEOC requires employers to be responsible for preventing and responding to harassment, regardless of who the perpetrator is. An employer certainly can’t be expected to know that a particular customer might cause a problem in the way they might with an employee; but once a customer causes an issue, the employer is expected to take immediate and appropriate action.
Missouri law is also explicit in holding employers directly liable for third-party harassment when they knew or should have known about it and failed to act. Consider, for example, the case of Delise Diaz, where an employer’s lack of response to repeated customer harassment led to a successful lawsuit under the MHRA. Employers must have clear policies and reporting mechanisms to ensure that employees can report harassment safely and without fear of retaliation.
The Missouri Court of Appeals decision in Diaz v. AutoZoneers LLC reaffirmed the importance of employer vigilance. It set a precedent that when an employer is notified of harassment by a customer, they must take the same rigorous steps they would take if the harasser were an employee. The court highlighted that employers must train management properly to handle and escalate harassment complaints.
How Courts Determine Employer Negligence
Courts assess negligence based on whether the employer had a chance to address the harassment and chose not to or failed to do so effectively. Employers must act on complaints immediately and take steps to prevent further incidents. This includes conducting thorough investigations, taking appropriate disciplinary actions against harassers, and making policy changes if necessary to protect employees.
Reporting and Remedial Procedures
Under federal law, employers are expected to establish and enforce anti-harassment policies and to ensure that employees are aware of the procedures for reporting harassment. They must maintain confidentiality as much as is possible and carry out a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into harassment claims.
The MHRA requires that Missouri employers take immediate and effective steps to address harassment, including harassment by customers. This includes reviewing all harassment reports and taking appropriate actions, which may include measures to prevent further contact between the harasser and the employee, providing support to the victim, and imposing sanctions on the harasser if doing so is within the employer’s control.
Creating a Safe Work Environment
Employers are well advised to create a work environment where harassment is not tolerated. This involves training employees on what constitutes harassment and the importance of reporting it, as well as how to deal with it if the harassment comes from a customer. Employers should also regularly review their anti-harassment policies and ensure they are adequately implemented and enforced.
But employees also have a role in maintaining a harassment-free workplace. They need to promptly report any incidents of harassment they experience or witness, and employers must assure employees that retaliation for reporting harassment is prohibited and will be met with disciplinary action.
What to Do If Next
If you are considering filing a sexual harassment claim against your employer because the harasser is a customer or client, there are certain steps to take. If possible and safe, inform the harasser that their conduct is unwelcome and must stop. Document this interaction if it occurs. Do confront a harasser, however, if you have any concerns about your immediate safety. Whether you do or do not talk to the harasser directly, follow the next steps carefully:
Use Your Employer’s Complaint Mechanisms
Employers should have a complaint mechanism or grievance system. Use this system to report the harassment. Documentation is key, so keep records of all communications related to the harassment.
File a Complaint
File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 300 days. The EEOC investigates allegations of sexual harassment and can determine if harassment occurred and whether the employer took appropriate action to stop it. They will look at the entire record, the circumstances, and the context in which the incidents occurred.
Under the Missouri Human Rights Act, you must file a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) within 180 days of the alleged discrimination. You may take a Discrimination Complaint Assessment on the MCHR website to see if they have jurisdiction over your issue. Once the assessment is complete, you’ll receive instructions on how to proceed with your complaint.
Both the EEOC and MCHR will conduct an investigation based on your complaint. They will evaluate evidence, may interview witnesses, and will review the policies of the employer and the circumstances of the reported harassment. If the EEOC or MCHR concludes there is reasonable cause to believe harassment occurred, they may issue a Notice of Right to Sue, which allows you to file a lawsuit in court.
Get Legal Representation
It’s always a good idea to get qualified legal representation as soon as possible, especially if you are considering suing in court. An attorney specialized in employment law can provide advice specific to your situation, help with filing a complaint, and represent you during the process.
Should you decide to sue, the case will enter the litigation phase where both sides can present their evidence, and a judge or jury will make a decision. Remedies in successful harassment claims can include compensatory damages, punitive damages, and injunctive relief such as changes in the employer’s harassment policies or training.
During the process, it is crucial to adhere to the timelines and procedural requirements specified by both the EEOC and MCHR. Failure to follow their rules exactly may affect your ability to get the justice you deserve. Remember, the process can be complex and may require detailed legal knowledge, especially if it proceeds to litigation, so always consult with a Jackson County, Missouri sexual harassment lawyer who has experience in both federal and state harassment cases.
Contact a Jackson County, Missouri Sexual Harassment Lawyer Now
If you believe your employer did not properly protect you from harassment by a customer or client, reach out to Holman Schiavone, LLC now. Our experienced team can effectively provide you with the legal guidance necessary to navigate your claim, advocate on your behalf, and work towards securing the justice and resolution you deserve.