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What is Harassment?

Harassment is defined as any behavior that is offensive, demeaning, belittling, or threatening. It can also include behavior that is hurtful, embarrassing, or that seeks to undermine the person, especially in the workplace. Workplace harassment can involve many different parties, including co-workers, employers, managers, supervisors, staff, and other persons.

With regard to workplace harassment, there are two main types of harassment - sexual harassment and hostile work environment. There may be many variations and types of sexual harassment, but one of the main types is “quid pro quo” harassment.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment in the workplace usually involves a supervisor offering a subordinate employee benefits in exchange for performing a sexual favor (such as a promotion or raise).

Quid pro quo harassment can also include situations where the higher-ranking employee threatens another worker if they refuse to perform the sexual activity. This can include withholding a promotion, terminating or threatening to terminate the employee, removing benefits, and other actions.

Besides quid pro quo and other forms of sexual harassment, the other main type of workplace harassment is hostile work environment. Hostile work environment claims involve conduct or communication that is considered offensive, severe, unwanted or unwelcome, and ongoing or pervasive.

In order to be considered hostile work environment, the behavior must interfere with the victim's capability to perform their work. It generally goes beyond mere teasing or horseplay or insults. The conduct or activity must be hostile in nature, which means. Hostile work environment cases can also involve other elements, such as discrimination or even sexual harassment.

Consequences of sexual harassment and hostile work environment can be severe. They can lead to legal consequences such as payment of damages, and other consequences such as a loss of employment for the defendant. In particularly severe cases, criminal charges can be brought, which may result in additional penalties such as jail time or criminal fines.

What Laws Protect Employees from Sexual Harassment?

There are various federal and state laws which protect employees from sexual harassment. Such laws provide definitions of harassment, as well as various consequences for the violation. For instance, under federal sexual harassment law, sexual harassment can include conduct such as:

  • Deliberate or intentional touching of another's body, which is unwelcome and does not contribute to the work in any way (this can include brushing up against the person's body or other conduct);
  • Any type of communication which is of a sexual nature and does not contribute to the type of work involved (for instance, forwarding emails with sexual content);
  • Pressure or repeated requests for a date, or for sexual activity, especially directed toward a subordinate by a person in authority;
  • Displays of obscenity, especially through pictures or videos;
  • Various other types of conduct.

Also, state laws may have various definitions for what constitutes sexual harassment. They can include more specific behavior such as:

  • Comments on a person's body or physique;
  • Inappropriate or offensive sexual jokes;
  • Touching the other person's clothing;
  • Spreading rumors or misinformation about a person's sexual life;
  • Various other types of conduct.

Harassment laws also lay out various employee responsibilities when it comes to workplace harassment. For instance, they may have a responsibility to alert their human resources department of any harassing or inappropriate behavior, especially where the victim's health, safety, or life are in danger.

What About Non-Work-Related Harassment?

Harassment can of course exist in various settings and contexts besides a work environment. For example, sexual harassment in schools can happen at various grade levels, and can involve similar conduct to workplace harassment. This includes inappropriate touching, advances, jokes, and other behavior.

Harassment can also occur in a manner that violates criminal laws. These can include instances of stalking, and other behavior that invades a person's privacy. State laws may vary when it comes to criminal harassment laws.

Harassment can also occur in other contexts as well. These include debt collection harassment instances, gender harassment, and telephone harassment cases from telemarketers or debt collectors. These can also be serious, especially in cases where the victim feels that their personal safety is being threatened by the harasser.

Examples of non-workplace related harassment include:

  • Repeated, unwanted phone calls;
  • Pressure or repeated contact on social media outlets;
  • Stalking or following a person constantly and regularly;
  • Using various threats or coercive language to obtain a certain goal;
  • Issuing threats to a person's well-being, including threats to their loved ones.

Some cases of harassment can actually rise to a level of assault, battery, or hate crimes, especially in cases where the conduct escalates to a level of violence.

What Is Stalking?

In general, stalking is criminal harassment. It occurs when someone makes a credible threat to another person and, in connection with that threat, either repeatedly communicates with the person or the person's immediate family, or repeatedly follows the person around. Stalking can also be where a person looks through windows or is a peeping tom.

When someone repeatedly makes obscene gestures or comments to another, it may also constitute a form of criminal harassment or stalking if it is done with the intent to harass the person.

Is Stalking Always a Misdemeanor?

Stalking is often a misdemeanor, but it can become a felony when a person is convicted more than once, or when the behavior is aggravated in some way. These distinctions depend on where the stalking takes place, as the laws vary by state.

What Constitutes a “Credible Threat”?

A “credible threat” is one that is made with the intent to cause someone to fear for his or her safety. The threat must be one that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her life or the safety of his or her family. Also, the threat usually must be one against the life of a person, or one of great physical injury to a person.

What If the Stalker Is a Former Spouse or Significant Other?

Commonly, a stalker will know his or her victim. If a stalker is a former spouse or other romantic partner, issues surrounding domestic violence may apply.

What is Telephone Harassment?

If you have been on the receiving end of harassing phone calls, then you likely have felt intimidated or annoyed. You may have even had fear for your own personal safety or your family's safety. Not only are harassing phone calls an intrusion into your personal privacy, they are illegal under federal and state laws.

Harassment, whether or not via the telephone, is a behavior by another person meant to intimidate, annoy, threaten, or place another person in fear for their own personal safety or their family's safety. Similar to the laws that protect you from harassment, the Federal Communications Act (“FCA”) and many state laws provide additional protections against telephone harassment. 

In short, telephone harassment occurs when a person makes unsolicited communications via phone that are meant to be threatening, obscene, or is unwanted. The FCA defines telephone harassment as the act of when a person by means of a telecommunications device knowingly makes, creates, or solicits a communication with intent to harass, abuse, or threaten another. 

Telephone harassment can appear in many different forms, but typically the following acts are examples of telephone harassment under the FCA:

  • Making or causing the telephone of another person to continuously ring;
  • Making obscene, lewd, or indecent comments, suggestions, or requests by means of a telecommunications device;
  • Making a telephone call, whether or not a conversation ensues, without identifying themselves; or 
  • Making repeated phone calls with a telecommunications device, where a conversation ensues, solely with an intent to harass the other person.

It is important to note that not every phone call will be considered to be telephone harassment under the law. However, one phone call alone may constitute telephone harassment, depending on the circumstances and particulars of the phone call. 

What Factors are Considered When Determining Whether Telecommunications are Harassment?

As noted above, not every phone call, whether annoying or not, will amount to telephone harassment under federal or state law. There are several factors that courts consider when determining whether telecommunications amount to harassment. 

These may include (but not limited to):

  • Timing: The timing of the phone calls is considered in determining whether a telecommunication is harassment. For instance, calls made late at night may suggest harassment, while calls placed during normal business hours may not; 
  • Frequency: The frequency of the phone calls will also be considered. Calls made repeatedly or more often suggest harassment, while one phone call may not. Additionally, whether or not the recipient has asked the caller to stop will also be considered in determining whether the conduct constitutes harassment. For example, if you have asked to be put on a do not call list, but are still receiving phone calls, you may have a case for harassment, amongst other legal claims; 
  • Threats: Threatening phone calls, such as phone calls threatening to harm or kidnap a person, will likely amount to harassment; and
  • Obscenity or Lewdness: If a telecommunication contains obscene or lewd comments, the comments themselves, suggestions, or requests will likely suggest harassment. This is especially true if the calls are repeated. 

All of the above factors will be considered in determining whether a single or repeated communication made by phone will amount to harassment. 

What Should I Do if I am Receiving Harassing Calls?

If you believe that you are being harassed over the phone, and the harassing call included a threat to harm you or another person, you should immediately contact the police. When contacting the police you should inform them of the threat and provide them with any possible information you have including: 

  • The time and date of the phone call; 
  • What exactly was said; 
  • The number that called you (if possible); and 
  • If the person is anonymous, any personal characteristics you could make out from the caller's voice (gender, age, etc.). 

It is important to never divulge any of your personal information over the phone, as the call may be a phishing phone call. 

If you know the person that is harassing you over the phone, and they have threatened you or your family with harm, then a restraining order or emergency protective order may be a better solution.

People who commit telephone harassment may be subject to significant fines, prison time, or both. If the harassing phone calls are coming from a business or debt collector there are other laws, besides the FCA or local telephone harassment laws, that offer you additional protections. 

Can Verbal Threats Be Assault?

As briefly mentioned above, the definitions and requirements to prove assault will depend on the laws of a specific state. However, the general rule of thumb is that verbal threats are not usually considered an act of assault.

A verbal threat is a statement made to someone else in which the speaker declares that they intend to cause the listener harm, loss, or punishment. Although this definition sounds very similar to the definition for assault, simply uttering threatening words to another person will most likely not count as an assault.

However, a verbal threat may become an act of assault in certain situations. For example, if a person threatens another individual by saying they are going to hit them, these words alone will probably not qualify as an assault. On the other hand, if the person recites these words while wielding a baseball bat, then this could be viewed as a verbal assault.

Basically, a verbal threat becomes a crime when:

  • The speaker threatens to harm or kill the listener or the listener's family;
  • The speaker's threat is specific and unambiguous;
  • The listener has reasonable belief and fear that the speaker will carry their threat out; and
  • The speaker communicates the threat either verbally, in writing, or through electronic correspondence (e.g., email, text message, etc.).

When these elements are met and the circumstances suggest that a verbal threat is serious, a person can press charges for verbal threats. The person who was threatened can do this by calling the police and having them file an incident report. From there the police will conduct an investigation. If there is enough evidence, the police will submit the report to a local prosecutor who will then determine whether to press criminal charges against the individual.

What are the Consequences of Verbal Assault?

There are a number of legal consequences that a person can face for committing an act of verbal assault. Some of these include having to pay criminal fines, being put on probation, and paying monetary damages to a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit.

Just because a person is not convicted, does not mean they will avoid being charged and arrested for verbal harassment. An act of verbal harassment may lead to being arrested when the harasser makes repeated remarks that constitute verbal abuse.

Additionally, a person may also have to go to jail for verbal threats. If a defendant to a verbal threat case is charged with a misdemeanor and convicted, they can face up to one year in jail. In cases that result in a felony conviction for making verbal threats, the defendant may face a significant prison sentence, ranging from at least one year or longer.

Can There Be an Assault If the Act Was Meant to Be a Practical Joke?

Although it will depend on the context and the people involved in the scenario, an act may still be considered an assault even if it was meant to be a practical joke. The reason why this is possible is due to one of the elements of proof in assault cases.

In a criminal assault case, the prosecutor must prove that a defendant intended their actions or behavior to create a reasonable apprehension of immediate harm or offensive contact to the victim. Thus, it is easy to imagine how this particular element can cause a practical joke to go seriously wrong.

For instance, suppose someone is having a non-themed birthday party. As a practical joke, two of their friends decide to show up wearing scary masks and brandishing weapons. If none of the guests realize who they are and they end up frightening everyone at the party, then they could be charged with assault if someone calls the police and reports the incident.

What Are Some Examples of When Acts and Circumstances Constitute Assault?

The speaker's actions and the circumstances surrounding an incident are crucial when determining whether or not an assault occurred.

For example, suppose two patrons are having an intense argument while drinking at a sports bar. One of them tells the other they are going to throw them off the roof for insulting their team. If the bar is located on the ground floor and both patrons are sitting on stools inside the bar, then this likely will not constitute assault. However, if they were standing on the roof of the bar during the argument, then this would be considered assault.

Continuing with the above example, suppose that instead of threatening to throw them off the roof, one of the patrons said they were going to smash their beer over the other patron's head and said it while they were brandishing their glass in a threatening manner. The additional action of waving their glass would constitute assault.

As a final example, now suppose the two bar patrons are friends. One of the friends turns to the other and says they are going to kill them, but smiles or laughs after making the statement. Even though they threatened to kill them, their relationship and lack of intimidation in this scenario makes it less likely that their actions would qualify as assault.

Can There Be Assault If I Think I Can Safely Run Away from Harm?

Remember, to meet the standard definition of assault a situation requires there to be “a reasonable apprehension of imminent harm.” As such, once a person experiences an assault, it does not matter whether they can safely run away from the impending harm. The assault occurs the moment they become aware that they are in danger of being injured or harmed.

What Should I Know About Filing a Harassment Lawsuit?

Filing a harassment lawsuit can be a complex matter. Here are some points to consider when looking to file a harassment claim:

  • There may be filing deadlines and time limits for filing a harassment claim; be sure to take legal action as soon as you suspect a violation has occurred.
  • Damages in a sexual harassment case may depend on your ability to provide evidence for the sexual harassment. Be sure to compile as much evidence as you can in preparation for the case, including documents, emails, witness testimony, photos and video, and other items for trial.
  • Remedies for a sexual harassment claim can extend beyond a simple damages award; some other remedies may include requiring a change in company harassment policies, removing the offender from their employment position, and other changes at the workplace.
  • The accused in a harassment case may have defenses available to them; you should anticipate possible defenses as you prepare. An attorney can help with case strategy.
  • Some types of claims may need you to file with a governmental agency or department first before you can file a private civil lawsuit for damages. You may need to consult with an attorney to determine what your initial steps must be.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I am Dealing with Harassment?

Harassment laws can be complex and will vary from state to state. If you need assistance with any type of harassment legal issues, whether it's in the workplace or at home, you may wish to hire a lawyer in your area. Your attorney can instruct you on how to prepare for your case, and can represent you during important court processes

Call our office today at 212-994-7777 or complete the convenient online contact form to set up a consultation.