What to Expect from a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Information For Employees and Businesses

Sexual harassment seems to be more common today than ever, but it’s really the sexual harassment lawsuit that’s more common. There’s more awareness of sexual harassment and more people are willing to stand up and file charges against harassers.

The definition of sexual harassment is broad. It includes everything from sex-for-benefits and offensive words, gestures, and unwanted flirting to hostile work environment (a work situation that allows sexual harassment to take place).

Where to File a Sexual Harassment Claim

In a sexual harassment lawsuit, the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) is called a claimant because they are filing a claim with a regulatory agency, based on a civil rights law. The federal law most used to try sexual harassment cases is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. This law is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Federal law requires sexual harassment cases to be filed against companies, not employees.

An employee who wants to file a sexual harassment claim against a business can do that through the EEOC if the business has 15 or more employees. If the business has fewer than 15 employees, the claim can be filed as a civil right case in a city or other local jurisdiction that has a civil rights statute (law).  

Most states have sexual harassment laws, and some of these laws differ from federal law. TrainingABC has a list of state sexual harassment laws.  

Use this guide to state civil rights offices to find information on filing a state or local sexual harassment claim.

Types of Damages in a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Damages are the amounts paid to the claimant if the case is settled in his or her favor. These payments are in two types: compensatory or punitive.

Compensatory damages are payments for losses that can be calculated. They include:

  • Lost pay, bonuses, tips, and commissions
  • Lost benefits, including health plan benefits, pension, and retirement benefits, paid-time-off benefits, and stock options or profit sharing.
  • Medical costs and psychological counseling.

Back pay is awarded if the employee lost their job or was fired because of sexual harassment. Federal law limits back pay to two years from the time the lawsuit was filed.


Front pay
is payments to the claimant between the time the case is settled and reinstatement (when the employee comes back to work). That is, until the claimant comes back to the workplace, as required by laws, in the same or a similar position.

In some cases, reinstatement isn’t possible, because the job is no longer available or because of the work environment. Front pay in these cases is based on future potential earnings. Figuring out future earnings takes into account the age of the claimant, potential future earnings (including benefits), and seniority at the previous job or throughout the person’s career.

Punitive damages are awarded to the claimant for things that can’t be calculated. They are intended as punishment for reckless or intentional actions. For example, if the claimant can prove that a company knew about sexual harassment and nothing to stop it, that could be intentional. A jury usually decides whether to award punitive damages, based on the evidence presented in the court process.


Federal law
limits the amount of compensatory and punitive damages in discrimination cases (including sexual harassment), depending on the size of the employer.

  • For employers with 15-100 employees, the limit is $50,000.
  • For employers with 101-200 employees, the limit is $100,000.
  • For employers with 201-500 employees, the limit is $200,000.
  • For employers with more than 500 employees, the limit is $300,000.

Costs of a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

The biggest cost of a sexual harassment case for both parties is legal fees. Most attorneys will agree to work on a contingency, meaning that they won’t get paid unless their client wins. Others will ask for a retainer amount before starting the case. Getting an attorney to accept a sexual harassment case on contingency is often a good indication that the case has merit.

The biggest cost for an employer is also legal fees, but many large companies have some form of liability insurance that will pay part of the settlement fees. It’s difficult to get a picture of what companies pay out to settle sexual harassment claims because most companies don’t want these settlement costs known.

The most important decision for both sides in a sexual harassment lawsuit is to find an attorney who is experienced in handling these types of cases. You can find sexual harassment law specialists by searching on the Martindale-Hubbell database or similar sites.  

How is a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Settled?

The overwhelming majority of sexual harassment cases are settled out of court, for a variety of reasons:

  • Both parties want to avoid the costs and lengthy time needed to settle in court.
  • The outcome of a court case is impossible to predict. A settlement provides a “bird-in-the-hand” of a guaranteed amount.
  • Victims of sexual harassment want to avoid the public humiliation of being asked about their sexual history.
  • Companies don’t want the publicity of a public trial.

A settlement is usually a compromise, meaning that the claimant shouldn’t expect the full amount being claimed.