Seattle Harassment Attorney
Disclaimer: The information on this website does not, and is not intended to constitute legal advice. All information on this site is for general information purposes. No reader of this site should act or refrain from acting on the basis of information provided on this site without seeking legal advice from counsel.
Ed Hones is an employment lawyer in Seattle, Washington, who represents victims of harassment. The purpose of this page is to provide workers with an easy-to-digest legal framework for workplace harassment, and to also provide answers to common questions that workers have about harassment lawsuits. If you believe you were a victim of harassment at work, contact Hones Law for a free consultation.
Overview of harassment law in Washington
Washington’s laws against discrimination make it an illegal practice to harass an employee on the basis of the employee’s protected characteristics (e.g. age, sex, religion, race, etc.).
So, what exactly constitutes harassment in Washington?
Washington courts have found harassment to occur when the following three propositions are all met:
- That there was language or conduct concerning the worker’s protected class,
- That this language or conduct was unwelcome, and
- That the language or conduct was so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of the worker’s employment.
Let’s drill down to what each of those propositions really means.
Language or conduct concerning protected class
Washington’s anti-discrimination laws protect workers from harassment on the basis of their protected class. That means that harassment only becomes illegal when the perpetrator is harassing the worker BECAUSE of the worker’s protected class. Here is a list of some of Washington’s protected classes:
- Marital status,
- National origin,
- Sexual orientation,
- Honorably discharged veteran status,
- Military status
Next, the worker must show that the language or conduct was unwelcome. To be considered unwelcome, the worker must show that he/she/they did not invite the conduct in some way, and instead regarded it as undesirable or offensive.1
The easiest way to show that conduct or language was unwelcome is with some written evidence that shows you found the conduct offensive. The best written evidence is a respectful complaint to HR or management. But any written evidence that shows you didn’t like the conduct will help establish its unwelcomeness.
Severe or pervasive
In order for the unwelcome behavior to be unlawful, it must be so severe OR pervasive that it altered the conditions of your employment. Severe or pervasive means that the conduct was either really extreme, or that it happened repeatedly over a period of time.
In determining whether conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive, a harassment lawyer will examine the circumstances surrounding the conduct. For example:
- Was the conduct threatening?
- Did it involve physical touching?
- Did the conduct interfere with the victim’s work?
- How frequent was the unwanted conduct?
- Was the perpetrator a manager, or was it a co-worker?
- Did the victim complain?
Finally, it matters who did the harassing. Was it a manager, or was it a co-worker? Generally, if the perpetrator was a manager, the employer is automatically liable. Managers are those people that have the authority to change employees’ hours, wages, and/or working conditions.
However, if the harasser was anyone else at your company, like a co-worker or non-managerial supervisor, the claim of harassment gets a little more tricky. In these circumstances, the employer is only liable if it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and adequate corrective action.
That is why making a written and respectful complaint to your company is so important in harassment cases. It does two important things: First, it demonstrates that the conduct is unwelcome. And second, it puts your employer on notice. If the employer fails to take prompt corrective action, the employer is then liable.
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Other types of harassment in Washington
As detailed above, Washington’s anti-discrimination laws make it illegal for an employer to harass a worker because of the worker’s protected characteristics. However, that definition of unlawful harassment is very broad, and unlawful harassment can take many different forms.
For example, it is also unlawful harassment for an employer to seek sexual favors in exchange for a job benefit or absence of a job detriment. This type of harassment is known as quid pro quo sexual harassment.
To learn more about sexual harassment, see my page on sexual harassment.
How do you prove harassment?
Put your employer on notice
If you are still employed, before you attempt to prove anything, make sure to put your employer on notice with a written and respectful complaint about the harassment.
Going to great lengths to prove something was unlawful to your employer is probably not your best option. Your employer may interpret it as a threat, and it might create friction between you and your employer.
So, instead of trying to prove anything, simply write a respectful complaint and submit it to HR or management (and keep a copy).
Making a complaint like that will do a few important things for you. First, it will probably stop the harassment in its tracks. Second, it will tremendously help your harassment lawyer if you eventually file a claim because it creates a record of the harassment and puts your employer on notice. Remember, an employer that knows about the harassment and fails to take prompt and adequate corrective action is liable.
Proving harassment is difficult. As we detailed in the first section of this page, the harassing conduct must have been unwelcome and severe or pervasive in order to be illegal. So, the perpetrator will attempt to diminish your account of the events and deny that their conduct was either unwelcome or severe or pervasive. They may claim that you welcomed or incited the behavior, and they may also claim that it was a one-time “no big deal” kind of thing.
Whatever the case may be, the best way to prove that you were harassed is to gather proof in the following three ways:
- Establish sequence of events (i.e. timeline),
- Gather and organize evidence,
- Find honest witnesses.
First, you can establish the sequence of events by making a record of every instance of harassment. Write down, as thoroughly as possible, exactly what happened and when it happened. Preferably, make this record immediately after the events take place.
Second, you will want to gather as much evidence as you can. This evidence can include:
Finally, talk to your co-workers. Has anyone else witnessed the harassing conduct or been a victim of the harassment themselves? If you can confirm the harassment through your co-workers’ testimony, your case becomes much stronger.
*HOWEVER*, do not voice record or video record anyone without their consent. Washington law makes it illegal to record another person without their consent.2 Furthermore, do not steal any company documents. Your employer may use that against you to limit your recovery later.
How much do harassment lawyers charge?
In most cases, harassment attorneys represent clients on a contingency basis. That means that the lawyer won’t charge any up-front fees, and instead only receives a percentage of what you recover.
However, harassment claims require a lot of work from a lawyer in order to effectively litigate it. Therefore, the value of the harassment claim has to be significant enough to justify the lawyer’s own investment.
Nevertheless, when contingency doesn’t seem like a viable option, harassment attorneys may still be willing to represent you for an hourly rate.
How much are harassment claims worth?
Washington’s anti-discrimination statute gives workers that were subjected to unlawful harassment the right to recover the “actual damages” sustained by the worker.3 The statute also gives workers the right to obtain a court order stopping future violations and also recover attorney’s fees. But, here, I will only address the “actual damages” portion.
Actual damages in harassment claims include back pay, front pay, mental anguish, and emotional distress.4
Damages in harassment cases
Harassment cases are highly variant, and the level of damages changes dramatically based on the circumstances of the case. For example, some harassment cases have settled for millions of dollars, while others settle for a few thousand dollars.
So, what factors determine the value of a harassment case? Here are just a few:
- The severity of the conduct,
- how much money you lost out on or will lose out on (if you were also discharged),
- the quality of your evidence,
- the possible publicity of the case (employers don’t like that),
- whether the company retaliated against you after you reported the harassment,
- the amount of emotional suffering you’ve had to endure,
- whether your case will go before a jury or a private arbitrator,
- whether the employer’s conduct was particularly egregious.
Is it worth it to sue your employer for harassment?
The quick answer is that it depends. Employment litigation is a valuable tool to hold an employer accountable for its wrongdoings. It is also a good way to get full compensation for the harms you’ve suffered. If you have lost earnings, your self-esteem has been severely damaged, or your career trajectory has taken a significant hit, suing your employer may be a good option for you.
However, if you are hoping to hit the jackpot and retire early, litigation is probably not your best option. The court system is not meant to help people get rich, no matter what you may have heard about the “hot coffee case.”
With that said, the civil justice system is an incredibly important component in our democracy. It is one of the only ways a regular person can hold a powerful company accountable. The system allows you to tell your story to the public and force powerful companies to change their unfair practices, which in turn prevents companies from harming other workers, and protects the community.
When should you call a harassment lawyer?
If you are still employed
Generally, the best course of action for a worker who is still employed is to write a respectful complaint about the harassment to HR or management.
Your company likely has a policy and procedure for these kinds of complaints, and you need to follow that procedure.
With a respectful, written complaint to management, you create a record of the harassment and you put your employer on notice. Furthermore, your employer will likely understand the implications of your complaint, and should take action to stop the harassment at once.
If, however, your employer fails to take corrective action, then you should think about contacting a harassment lawyer near you.
If you were fired
If you were discharged after experiencing unlawful harassment, you should contact a harassment attorney immediately. At the very least, you should contact an attorney before signing any separation agreement.
Separation agreements will often times eliminate the worker’s ability to bring a claim in the future. You have a valuable right to bring a claim, and you don’t want to sign that right away without first talking to an attorney.
If you can’t find a lawyer
If you can’t find a lawyer to take your case, you can file your complaint directly with the Washington State Human Rights Commission.
Note: If you file the claim with Washington State’s Human Rights Commission, you must submit your complaint within six months of the violation.
What is the statute of limitations for a Harassment claim?
The statute of limitations is the deadline to file your claim. If you fail to meet the statute of limitations deadline, your claim expires.
The statute of limitations varies depending on what kind of claim you file and where you file it.
Washington’s statute of limitations
The statute of limitations for actions involving harassment under Washington’s Laws Against Discrimination is THREE YEARS.5
However, if you choose to pursue your claim with Washington’s Human Rights Commission, you must file your claim with the commission within SIX MONTHS.
Federal statute of limitations
If your claim involves the violation of federal anti-discrimination law, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the ADEA, or the ADA, you must file your complaint with the EEOC within 300 DAYS of the act of discrimination.
Employment Law is my Singular focus
If you were the victim of harassment at work, you need a harassment attorney who knows the practice area well and can get you compensation.
I am a harassment lawyer in Seattle, Washington, who focuses on one area of law so that you can rest assured that your case is in the right hands.
Contact Hones Law today for a free consultation.