Legal Matters: Sexual harassment covered under Civil Rights Act of 1964

Unless you’ve been living on a desert island, you have probably heard recent news coverage of sexual harassment issues. More and more victims have come forward to allege that they have been the targets of unwanted advances in the workplace.

Sexual harassment claims generally rest on federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act says, “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer … to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”


A 1986 case tested whether Title VII covers sexual harassment. It does, the Supreme Court ruled. Tests for whether conduct violates Title VII include whether the sexual conduct is unwelcome, the workplace is sexually hostile, what specific harassment is alleged and what preventive or remedial action the employer took in response to sexual harassment claims.

Another case, from the federal circuit court district that includes Maryland, established that an employee who quit her job after her boss repeatedly pressed his genitals against her at work and ignored her requests to stop had been in effect fired. The court held that the store had constructively fired her by making working conditions intolerable and she was entitled to sue for compensation.

In Maryland, a sexual harassment complaint procedure form published by the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation states, “Under federal and state regulations and guidelines that implement section 703 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment which is perceived by the victim to be abusive or hostile.”

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The Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act prohibits discrimination based on sex, marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity. Sexual harassment is generally considered to fall under the act, which applies to all public employers in the state and to private employers who employ 15 or more persons. In October 2015, coverage under the act was expanded to include unpaid interns, but the 15-employee applicability did not change.

Some victims have complained that reporting incidents of perceived harassment to a company’s human resources department, a standard procedure, is unhelpful because human resources personnel act only to protect the company.

A recent Business Insider article advised employees to notify their human resources departments, even if they believe the departments will not act, and to keep a paper trail. If human resources fails to handle the complaint, seek another job, the article advised.