The horrifying scale of sexual harassment in the US workplace is finally coming to light, with each day revealing new accounts of men in power abusing their positions. A few high-profile cases, starting with allegations against Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly, have given way to a flood of revelations following accusations against Harvey Weinstein.
But as victims of harassment have become emboldened to come forward, some are discovering their opportunity to seek redress in court has been cut off by an expired statute of limitations. That could well be the case for the women who accused veteran political journalist Mark Halperin of groping and forcing his body against them when he was at ABC News more than a decade ago. Halperin, who was put on leave from his position at NBC after the allegations came to light at CNN yesterday (Oct. 25), issued an apology for his behavior but denied touching the women inappropriately.
Depending on the jurisdiction, the window to file a claim in the US can be as narrow as 180 days, and once it expires, victims have few options. One of them is going public, said Michael S. Cohen, who practices employment law at Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia.
“Just because someone can’t bring a claim, it doesn’t mean they’re not going to talk about it,” he said. And “social media is a vehicle the likes of which we have never seen before.”
Whether the targets of harassment choose to speak out may depend on what they hope to gain. Victims may want to simply call attention to the abuses, particularly in the case of high-profile harassers, or they may be seeking a settlement from their employer for the suffering endured. In the latter case, it may be in the interest of a company to offer a payment even if the statute of limitations has expired and there are no legal rights to press, Cohen said. It allows the employer to walk a fine line, because ignoring a victim would send the wrong message to current and future employees, while settling can contain the risk to the company’s reputation, he said.
“The word on your street about your organization is incredibly important, and if the word on street is that you don’t take these issues seriously, you’re going to have difficult time attracting talented employees,” said Cohen.
To bring a federal discrimination lawsuit against an employer—which is often the preferred legal vehicle for cases of sexual harassment—victims need to file a claim with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the last incident, although the timetable is generally extended to 300 days if they’re in a state with a similar law. In many states, the window to file is longer, but the case will be heard in state courts. In New York, for example, there’s a three-year window to file a suit. In California, victims have one year to sue an employer.
(Note that these windows only cover civil cases. If someone who was harassed believes they were a victim of a crime such as physical assault, and alerts law enforcement, it can become a criminal case and would be subject to different statutes of limitations.)
Statutes of limitations date back to ancient Greece and were written into US law Congress and state legislatures to speed the pursuit of justice and protect defendants from an endless threat of a lawsuit. As time goes on, evidence decays and the memories of witnesses can grow faulty.
With so many women now stepping forward and naming their alleged harassers, the hope is more victims will feel secure in pressing their claims within the legal window, said Randi Melnick, a lawyer in New York who represents plaintiffs. When women no longer fear repercussions, they’ll step forward, so long as they feel confident their employers will support them. “We need to take the risk out of it,” she said.