Sexual harassment is not a crime in Colorado unless it involves some sort of sexual battery or sexual assault. Instead, sexual harassment is generally a civil matter. This means the alleged victim can file a lawsuit for compensation. Prosecutors cannot pursue criminal charges, however. People who commit sexual harassment do not go to jail. Instead, they can be made to pay money to the victim.
Harassment can become a crime if it amounts to unlawful sexual contact (CRS 18-3-404).
Sexual harassment laws in Colorado
There are 2 laws that prohibit sexual harassment in Colorado:
- 42 USC 2000e, a federal law better known as Title VII, and
- CRS 24-34-402, a state law.
Both of these laws prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. They treat it as a form of sex or gender discrimination.
Both laws give the victim the right to take legal action. They can sue their harasser and their employer.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination in the workplace. It involves unwanted sexual advances or conduct. Harassment generally falls into 2 categories:
- Sex-based conduct that creates an unequal or hostile work environment, or
- “Quid pro quo” arrangements that ties workplace success to sexual favors.
Most instances of sexual harassment are hostile working environments. They can involve claims of:
- Unwanted sexual advances,
- Non-consensual touching,
- Sexually-tinged jokes and crude or crass humor,
- Awkwardly sexual conversation in the workplace, and
- Spreading sexual rumors about workers.
Not all sexual harassment is so apparent, though. Some less obvious examples of sexual harassment can include:
- Unequal pay for different genders,
- Requiring sexual favors for a promotion,
- Punishing or firing workers who refuse sexual favors, and
- Only hiring, promoting, or favoring one gender in the workplace.
No physical contact is necessary for sexual harassment.
Power imbalances at work are also not necessary. Workers can be sexually harassed by bosses, co-workers, or even customers or non-workers.
What is necessary is that the conduct is unwanted. Consensual sexual conduct is not harassment.
Title VII and sexual harassment
The federal law that applies to sexual harassment in Colorado is 42 USC 2000e. This law is also known as Title VII.
Title VII applies to the following workplaces:
- State governments,
- Local and municipal governments, and
- Private companies with more than 15 employees.
People who work at smaller companies cannot use Title VII to file a lawsuit for sexual harassment.
Title VII allows victims of harassment to file a lawsuit against their harassers. It can also give victims the right to sue their employer for discrimination in some situations. Title VII also protects employees who file discrimination lawsuits from retaliation.
Colorado's state law against sexual harassment – CRS 24-34-402
CRS 24-34-402 is the state law that allows civil lawsuits over sexual harassment.
This statute applies to all employers except religious institutions that do not receive federal funding. CRS 24-34-402 protects Colorado workers employed by small companies.
What are sexual harassment lawsuits?
A lawsuit over sexual harassment in the workplace is a civil claim. It aims to hold the harasser accountable for their actions by demanding compensation. In some cases, the lawsuit can include the employer for failing to prevent the harassment.
Compensatory damages seek reimbursement to cover:
- Lost wages,
- Medical expenses for stress-related symptoms caused by the harassment,
- Any reduction in earning potential caused by a reputation tainted by sexual rumors or harassment, and
- Mental suffering.
Punitive damages can make the harasser or employer pay for especially egregious conduct.
What is the crime of unlawful sexual contact?
Sexual harassment can become a crime if it is severe enough to amount to unlawful sexual contact. Harassment can become severe enough if:
- The harasser knowingly touches the victim in an intimate place, or
- The harasser knowingly gets the victim to touch them in an intimate place.
In either case, the contact has to be non-consensual. However, unlike with sexual harassment, contact is necessary.
While the contact does not have to be intentional, the alleged harasser has to know what they are doing.
Unlawful sexual contact under CRS 24-34-402 is usually a Class 1 misdemeanor. It is also an extraordinary risk crime that adds time to the jail sentence. As a result, convictions for unlawful sexual contact carry between:
- $500 to $5,000 in fines, and
- 6 months to 2 years in jail.
If the contact involved force, intimidation, or a threat, unlawful sexual contact is a Class 4 felony. This can come with between:
- $2,000 to $500,000 in fines, and
- 2 to 8 years in prison.