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What Really Constitutes Harassment and What Can I Do?

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Harassment is unwanted verbal or physical behavior intended to humiliate and offend you. This article addresses what constitutes harassment and what your potential remedies are.

What Constitutes Harassment?

Harassment may come in many forms; it could be physical or verbal, via email, phone or in person. This behavior is usually intentional and repetitive. A person guilty of harassment may face both civil and criminal liability.

Criminal Harassment

State laws determine what criminal harassment is. Though states vary on how they define criminal harassment, in most cases, you need to show that the following elements are present to successfully bring a criminal harassment suit:

  • The defendant acted intentionally
  • The actions were repetitive
  • The actions caused credible threat to the safety of the victim and/or their family

Harassment charges can vary from a misdemeanor to a felony. Before deciding what the defendant should be charged with, courts take into consideration several factors, including previous charges and whether the defendant was violating a restraining order.

Courts also consider if the defendant targeted a protected group. This happens when someone targets victims because of their national origin, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability.

If you face a harassment suit, it might be worth speaking to a criminal defense attorney to help navigate the court system and ensure your rights are protected.

Civil Harassment

Civil harassment cases are not considered criminal cases. In civil harassment cases, you can bring a civil suit claiming the harassment has resulted in discrimination. Civil harassment suits are very common in the following cases:

Workplace Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees discrimination in the workplace. This includes discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, and religion. States and local governments have also enacted laws that protect employees from workplace discrimination.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination recognized under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. States can also enact laws regarding sexual harassment. Vermont, for instance, requires employers to adopt a sexual harassment policy.

Sexual harassment claims can take the form of either hostile work environment or quid pro quo.

Housing Discrimination

The Fair Housing Act protects individuals' housing rights. The Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants based on a number of factors, including race, national origin, and familial status.

In addition to the Fair Housing Act, state and local laws also protect victims of housing discriminationCalifornia and Minnesota are good examples of states with laws that protect tenants beyond the protection offered by federal law.

Are You a Victim of Harassment? Speak to an Attorney Right Away

No one should have to face harassment. If you or your family member face harassment or discrimination and you want to know your legal options, consult an attorney experienced in discrimination for legal help.

What Remedies Do I Have If Someone Is Harassing Me?

If you don't think you can solve the problem through dialogue, you should consider filing a restraining order. This is especially important in situations involving domestic violence. While a restraining order is a civil remedy, violating it may result in criminal punishment.

In employment discrimination cases, you have to exhaust administrative remedies by first bringing the case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The same situation applies to housing discrimination cases. In such cases, you need to file a complaint to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Additional Resources

Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

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