Most workplace harassment lawsuits are based upon allegations of quid pro quo harassment or a hostile work environment. The 7 most common grounds for workplace harassment lawsuits are:
- disability discrimination,
- racial harassment,
- sexual harassment,
- age discrimination,
- harassment based on national origin,
- color harassment, and
- religious discrimination.
Some of these can also support a discrimination lawsuit.
What are the most common grounds for a workplace harassment lawsuit?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the most common charges of discrimination in 2020 were1:
|Type of harassment||Percentage of charges filed|
|National origin||9.5 percent|
These are charges of workplace discrimination received by the EEOC. Discrimination is slightly different from harassment. Discrimination is conduct or other employment practices that are within the actor’s official job duties. Harassment is conduct that is outside of the actor’s official duties.2
For example: Bill is a shift manager at a fast food restaurant in Los Angeles. He assigns all of the worst shifts to women. This is sex discrimination because assigning the shifts is a part of his job. Bill then makes unwanted sexual advances on a female employee. This is sexual harassment.
Many harassment claims also include claims of discrimination, and vice versa.
As you can see, however, not all harassment is sexual harassment.
The percentages reported by the EEOC add up to more than 100 percent because many charges of harassment include more than one type. Additionally, 55.8 percent of all charges included an allegation of workplace retaliation.
If you have been harassed in the workplace, you should strongly consider seeking out the legal advice of employment lawyers from a reputable employment law firm. Once you have established an attorney-client relationship, your attorney can file a harassment complaint or a lawsuit for employment discrimination.
Both federal and state anti-harassment laws make it unlawful to discriminate against someone for having a mental or physical disability. This often takes the form of discrimination, with the employer:
- refusing to hire a disabled job applicant,
- firing someone who has become disabled,
- offering lower pay or fewer benefits, or
- refusing to provide reasonable accommodations.
However, disability harassment can also happen if supervisors or coworkers target you with offensive conduct that is severe or pervasive.
In either case, disability harassment or discrimination can violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Most states also have laws that forbid disability discrimination or harassment, like the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Complaints can be filed with federal agencies, like the EEOC, or with state ones, like the California Civil Rights Department.
Racial discrimination and harassment can also be grounds for a lawsuit. It can violate California law in the FEHA as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
If your employer does any of the following based on your race or perceived race, it can amount to racial discrimination:
- refuses to hire you,
- refuses to select you for a training program,
- fires or discharges you, or
- provides you fewer employment benefits or worse employment conditions.
You can also face racial harassment at work. If unwelcome workplace conduct targets you because of your race and it is either severe or pervasive, it can be grounds for a lawsuit. This includes conduct as well as speech, whether it is verbal or written or in text messages, like:
- racial epithets,
- slurs, and
- other derogatory language that targets your race.
Sexual harassment is a prominent type of workplace harassment. While many other types of harassment almost always come in the form of a hostile work environment, sexual harassment cases can also take the form of quid pro quo harassment.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment is an exchange of workplace benefits for a sexual favor.3
However, sexual harassment can also come in the form of a hostile work environment. If unwelcome sexual conduct is severe or pervasive enough, it can be the grounds for a workplace harassment lawsuit.
Importantly, sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct that targets you because of your sex. You can also be sexually harassed at work if the conduct targets other aspects of your sex, like your:
- gender identity or gender expression,
- sexual orientation, or
Age discrimination also violates state law and federal law, through the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Federal law, as well as California’s FEHA, protects workers over the age of 40 from discriminatory conduct or harassment.
Frequently, age discrimination manifests itself in:
- mandatory retirement ages,
- layoffs that exclusively target older or senior-level workers,
- refusing to hire workers who are not young, or
- asking your age during the hiring process and then rejecting applicants over the age of 40.4
However, workers over 40 can also be subjected to age harassment. This is unwelcome conduct that targets your age and is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile working environment.
Workers can also be harassed for their national origin. This type of harassment violates Title VII5 as well as many state anti-discrimination laws. National origin harassment is unwelcome conduct that targets someone’s:
- origin from a particular country or region,
- accent, or
It also includes harassment based on the perception of these traits.
If the harassment or workplace bullying is severe or pervasive, it can create a hostile work environment.
State and federal anti-discrimination law also forbids workplace harassment that targets someone’s skin color. These charges are often filed alongside harassment based on the person’s:
- race, and
- national origin.
Workers can also be subjected to harassment based on their religion. If unwelcome comments or conduct targets their religion and are severe or pervasive, it can create a hostile work environment.6
Religious harassment or discrimination violates both state and federal civil rights laws.
What is quid pro quo harassment?
1 of the 2 forms of harassment is a quid pro quo. The phrase is Latin for “this for that.” The harasser – almost always a supervisor – offers workplace benefits in exchange for a favor – almost always a sexual one.
These workplace benefits can be:
- getting hired for the job,
- receiving a pay raise,
- being offered a promotion,
- a good work performance review, or
- refraining for taking disciplinary action.7
Because this conduct is done by a supervisor, it can generally lead to employer liability for your wage losses, medical conditions, and emotional distress caused by the harassment. In rare cases, you can also be awarded punitive damages.
What amounts to a hostile work environment?
The other, more common, form of unlawful harassment is hostile work environment harassment. This is conduct that:
- is unwelcome,
- targets your protected class or protected characteristic, and
- is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would see that it alters the terms of your employment.8
If your supervisor is responsible for this harassing behavior, you can hold your employer strictly liable. If it was a non-supervisor or a coworker, your employer can only be liable in your harassment case if you notified the human resources department but they failed to take appropriate corrective action under their harassment policy to stop it.
- Press Release, “EEOC Releases Fiscal Year 2020 Enforcement and Litigation Data,” (Feb. 26, 2021).
- Serri v. Santa Clara University, 226 Cal.App.4th 830 (2014).
- See Mogilefsky v. Superior Court, 20 Cal.App.4th 1409 (1993).
- See California Code of Regulations (CCR) 11079.
- 42 USC 2000e-2.
- See Hughes v. Pair, 46 Cal.4th 1035 (2009).
- Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 106 S.Ct. 2399 (1986).