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Sexual harassment protection does not extend to unpaid interns

It has been estimated that one in four women are sexually harassed in the workplace. Unwanted advances are usually aimed at women, but men can also be victims of sexual harassment from supervisors or even co-workers. Many employees never report the abuse because they are afraid of retaliation. When harassment is reported, however, it often leads to civil lawsuits that negatively impact the company.

Our readers in Harris County might be interested in the ruling of a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against a New York company by an intern. A woman sued the company she worked for, claiming that her former supervisor touched her inappropriately. The judge presiding over the case ruled that she technically was not an employee of the company and, as a result, does not have the legal ability to sue the company because her internship was unpaid. The judge interpreted the definition of an employee as a person who receives benefits of employment. Oregon is the one and only state in the nation that allows unpaid interns to press charges for sexual harassment. The woman also claims that she was denied employment because of her allegations of sexual harassment. This portion of her suit could still have merit under failure to hire laws.

Accusations of sexual harassment should not be taken lightly. Employers who are accused of facilitating such behavior should immediately consult a lawyer. The laws surrounding sexual harassment are complex, as evidenced in this situation. An experienced attorney can help companies determine the best course of action to mitigate the damage based on the unique circumstances of the case. It might also be a good idea to have a professional review the company’s current policies related to sexual harassment instituting employee training programs to prevent future lawsuits.

Source: Texas Public Radio, “Judge: Unpaid Intern Not Protected Under NYC Sexual Harassment Law,” Editor, Oct. 10, 2013.

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