30 SELF-DEFENSE AND SURVIVAL TRICKS YOU MUST KNOW
How to Defend Yourself in a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
Under state and federal law, sexual harassment – defined as unwelcome sexual advances toward another person– is prohibited in the workplace. In some states, you also my be accused of sexual harassment in other situations, such as schools or doctor's offices, where you are in a position of authority over the accuser. Regardless of the context, if you are sued for sexual harassment you must respond to the lawsuit quickly to preserve your right to defend yourself.
Drafting Your Answer
Analyze the complaint and summons.The complaint and summons tell you who is suing you and why, and how long you have to respond.
- The summons has the name and contact information of the person suing you (and his or her attorney, if applicable), and will let you know how long you have to officially respond to the lawsuit.
- Typically you have fewer than 30 days from the date you received the complaint and summons to file an answer with the court where the lawsuit was initiated.
- The complaint will include details regarding the allegations as well as the person the plaintiff alleges sexually harassed him or her. If you are the plaintiff's employer, you are liable under the law for the acts of your employees, including supervisors or co-workers of the plaintiff.
- Check the statute of limitations to make sure the plaintiff is allowed to file a lawsuit. The statute of limitations gives plaintiffs a deadline to file suit or risk dismissal of their claims.
Review state or federal administrative requirements.Employees typically must file a charge with state or federal administrative agencies before filing a lawsuit in court.
- These administrative requirements may not apply if the sexual harassment was alleged to occur in another context.
- If the plaintiff has sued you as his or her employer for workplace sexual harassment without completing the charge procedure, the lawsuit will be dismissed.
- A claim under a federal sexual harassment law must be brought in federal court, while claims involving state law only typically must be initiated in state civil courts. If the complaint was filed in a state court, you'll want to review your state law to determine whether the case must first be brought in a federal court.
Consider consulting an attorney.Particularly if the plaintiff is represented by counsel, you may want an attorney to represent you or at least provide limited advice on your case.
- The type of attorney you need will depend on the context of the accusations. An employment attorney, for example, would be able to help you in cases of workplace harassment, but in other contexts you may want to seek a general civil defense attorney or even a criminal defense attorney.
- If you're concerned about the cost of attorney's fees, you might be able to find someone who is willing to defend you on a sliding fee scale, or to advise you as a consultant on certain aspects of your case without appearing on your behalf.
- However, you should always balance the amount of money you are willing to budget on attorney's fees with what you stand to lose if the judge rules in the plaintiff's favor. In addition to monetary damages, you also should consider the harm to your reputation or to employee morale.
Seek out templates or forms.Most courts have fill-in-the-blank forms or templates available for your use in responding to the complaint.
- You also can ask the clerk for copies of answers filed in other civil cases in the same court. Use these answers as guides to the formatting of your answer, but be careful about copying language directly from them that may not apply to your case.
- You typically can type your answer using a standard word-processing application. Check the print format to ensure it's set to print on 8.5 x 11 paper with one-inch margins on all sides.
- On the first page of your document, copy the caption from the complaint. It should look exactly the same on yours, except that you will title your document "Answer" instead of "Complaint."
Respond to the allegations.You must address each of the allegations listed in the complaint and state whether you admit or deny it.
- Write in the third person, referring to yourself as "Defendant" and the person who sued you as "Plaintiff."
- Respond to each allegation using the same paragraph numbers as the plaintiff used in the complaint. Type the paragraph number, then type "admit" or "deny," whichever is appropriate.
- You also can respond to an allegation by stating "Defendant lacks sufficient information to admit or deny the allegation." If you use this response, the court will treat it the same as if you had denied the allegation.
- If you don't respond to an allegation, however, the court treats it as though you admitted it – so make sure you don't leave any out.
- Keep in mind that when you deny an allegation, you aren't saying it isn't true. You're simply requiring the plaintiff to carry his or her burden of proof and show the court that allegation is true.
Sign your answer.Once you've finished your answer, you're ready to print it out and sign and date it.
- Make sure you proofread your answer for grammatical errors and typos before you print it. Then sign it in ink.
- You will need at least two copies of your signed answer – one to have delivered to the plaintiff, and one for your own records. The clerk will keep the original for the court's files.
File your answer.Take your original answer and copies to the clerk's office of the court where the plaintiff filed his or her lawsuit to have it filed with the court.
- The clerk will stamp all your documents "filed" and then return the copies to you. Typically you will be responsible for having the answer served on the plaintiff. This means the documents are delivered to the plaintiff in such a way that you can prove to the court they were received by a certain date.
- The easiest way to serve an answer is using certified mail with returned receipt requested. The signed card you get back after delivery provides proof of receipt. You also can hire a sheriff's deputy or someone from a private process-serving company to hand-deliver the documents to the plaintiff and fill out a proof of service for the court.
Building Your Defense
Research state and federal law.The laws that protect employees from sexual harassment also provide defenses for employers and co-workers accused of harassment in the workplace.
- Generally, federal law requires an employee to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the incident of alleged harassment. In some circumstances, the employee must notify his or her employer and allow a reasonable period of time for investigation.
- Particularly in small or close-knit organizations, employees may have difficulty reporting sexual harassment if they believe all the supervisors or managers have close personal relationships and will defend one another. Keep this in mind when you consider the notice requirements under state and federal statutes.
- Typically supervisors or those in a position of authority over the accuser will be held to a higher standard than those who are considered to be on equal footing. This is because if someone has authority over someone else, he or she may feel pressured to tolerate behavior that makes him or her uncomfortable.
Gather documents.Particularly in cases involving workplace harassment, personnel files and copies of your company sexual harassment policies will be important to your defense.
- For example, if the plaintiff is your employee and the accused is his co-worker, you want to pull copies of any harassment reports that were made – either by the plaintiff or by any other employees – about the behavior of the accused, along with records of how the complaint was investigated and what was done in response.
- Having records of written policies prohibiting sexual harassment and consistent enforcement of those policies also can strengthen your defense as an employer.
- Any information you have about the accused, or the relationship and interactions between the accused and the plaintiff, also should be compiled and evaluated.
- If you are the person accused of sexual harassment, look for any written communication such as emails or text messages that indicate your advances were welcomed by the plaintiff. #*Written correspondence serves as evidence in court and can avoid having the lawsuit devolve into a "he said, she said" fight.
Talk to witnesses.Other people who saw your interactions with the plaintiff may be willing to testify on your behalf that your words or behavior did not rise to the level of harassment.
- Witness accounts can be particularly effective if the plaintiff told someone at any time that he or she was planning to file a sexual harassment lawsuit, for example to "get back" at the accused for some perceived slight.
- Witnesses also can speak to the reaction of the plaintiff to the allegedly harassing behavior.For example, if an employee tells a friend she enjoys the fact that one of their co-workers constantly flirts with her, this testimony can cast doubt on whether the behavior was unwelcome.
- If you are the accused, you may want to consider character witnesses who can testify that you are not the sort of person who would engage in sexual harassment. However, be careful not to attack the plaintiff's character in the course of building up your own. This can backfire and make you look like a mean or spiteful person.
Participate in discovery.Through the discovery process, you and the plaintiff can exchange information and evidence you plan to use at trial.
- Written discovery – including written questions known as interrogatories and requests for production – is an important way to gain an understanding of the other side's case and the evidence that will be introduced at trial.
- You also can gain information that you can use to hone your defense strategy, because you have the opportunity to evaluate the plaintiff's evidence for each allegation and determine which points are weakly supported.
- Another important part of discovery is the deposition, which is a live interview of the other party or witnesses in the case. The interview is recorded by a court reporter, who creates a written transcript for your reference.
Consider using a mediator.Mediation is a confidential process less formal than a trial, and can help you come to a mutually agreeable resolution with the plaintiff.
- Since mediation is confidential, it can help protect the privacy of those involved in the lawsuit, and limit gossip about the incident around the community or in the workplace.
- If you and the plaintiff decide to pursue mediation, contact the clerk for a list of mediators in your area that have been approved by the court.
- Some courts require parties to attempt mediation before a trial will be scheduled. When mediation is required, you typically won't have to pay any fees for it. However, you may have to pay the mediator a fee – generally around a few hundred dollars – if mediation is not required or provided by the court system.
Avoid discussing the lawsuit at work.If people who aren't involved in the lawsuit ask you questions about the lawsuit, politely tell them that you can't talk about it.
- It can be tempting to correct people if you hear co-workers gossiping about the case. However, you should do all that you can to stay out of these conversations. Keep in mind that anything you say may be passed on to the plaintiff and can come back to bite you.
- As the employer, you may want to send out a memo to all employees providing a summary of the lawsuit and your expectations regarding workplace discussions and conduct. If you have an attorney, have him or her look over your memo before you send it out.
- As an employee, if you and the plaintiff cross paths regularly at work, you may want to take steps to limit interaction and contact while the lawsuit is going on.
- For example, you might arrange to work temporarily in another department, or to work different hours.
Attending Your Trial
Organize your defense and evidence.In preparation for trial, you'll want to outline the key points of your defense along with the documents or evidence you plan to present to prove these points.
- Compile at least two copies of documents you intend to present as evidence, if it's appropriate to do so. If a document is lengthy you typically won't be required to distribute copies.
- Make an outline of your defense, organized by the key points you want to make to the court. Plan on leading with your strongest argument and working down the list to less compelling arguments.
- Meet with any witnesses you intend to call at least once before the trial, so you can go over the questions you plan to ask. You also can brainstorm possible questions the plaintiff might ask on cross-examination.
- If you've decided to represent yourself at trial, you may want to visit the court before your trial so you can observe other cases. This will increase your familiarity with court procedures and help you understand what the judge expects from people in his or her courtroom.
Appear on your court date.If you don't appear at the date and time your trial is scheduled, the judge may rule in the plaintiff's favor by default.
- Try to arrive at least 30 minutes early so you have time to go through security and find the correct courtroom.
- Check with the clerk or on the court's website ahead of time to find out what items are probated in the courtroom so you won't get held up in security.
- If the judge is hearing several cases on the same day, take a seat in the gallery until your case is called. Then you and the plaintiff will stand and move to the tables for litigants in the front of the courtroom.
Pay attention to the plaintiff's presentation.Typically the plaintiff will be asked to speak first and lay out his or her case for the judge.
- Avoid talking directly to the plaintiff or interrupting him or her. If the plaintiff says something with which you disagree, make a note of it so you can bring it up when you present your defense.
- If the plaintiff calls any witnesses, you will have the opportunity to ask them questions yourself through cross-examination. You can use this time to cast doubt on the truth of statements the witness made.
- Be careful asking a witness a question if you have no idea what his or her answer will be. This strategy can backfire if the witness says something that's actually harmful to your case.
Present your defense.After the plaintiff has finished, you have the opportunity to tell your side of the story.
- Focus on telling a story through your evidence, presenting your strongest points first. Call your witnesses when they have information or observations that supports each point.
- The plaintiff will have the opportunity to cross-examine your witnesses. When he or she is finished, the judge may allow you to question the witness again to "redirect" his or her testimony and reinforce the reason you called the witness in the first place.
- Speak loudly and clearly, and make each point quickly and in reference to supporting facts and evidence that back up each claim.
Wait for the judge's ruling.At the conclusion of the trial, the judge will either issue an order immediately or take the case under advisement.
- If the judge takes the case under advisement, that means he or she wants to look over the documents that were filed and the evidence again before issuing the final order.
- Ask the clerk how long it will be before the order will be entered, if the judge doesn't make a decision immediately after the trial. In some cases you will have to call the court, while others will notify you when the judge issues his or her final order in the case.
If accused of sexual harassment at work, what questions should answer without a lawyer?
- Certain facts are not considered valid defenses to sexual harassment, such as the fact that the accuser was the same gender as the accused, the two parties previously had a relationship, or the accuser didn't explicitly reject the advances of the accused.
- There are civil and occasionally even criminal penalties for filing a false sexual harassment claim. If you believe the lawsuit is without any basis and was filed merely to annoy or intimidate you or the accused, speak to an attorney as soon as possible to learn what your options are.
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