United States: The Stale Harassment Complaint: Coal In Your Stocking?

Last Updated: December 21 2017
Article by Nick C. Geannacopulos and Monica Rodriguez

Seyfarth Synopsis: The natural inclination is to ignore attempts to dredge up claims of harassment that happened long ago. But no harassment claim is too old to investigate. Having strong anti-harassment policies and investigation procedures, along with a good work culture, can help employers avoid getting caught in the cross-fire of the "me-too" harassment dialogue.

The #MeToo movement has enveloped America. Women in every station of life—celebrities and ordinary folk alike—have broken their silence to report sexual misconduct. Often the allegations address conduct that occurred years ago, beyond any legal limitations period.

So what is an employer to do? Suppose an employee or former employee comes forward to say, "I was harassed 10 years ago by my supervisor and I want you to investigate!" What do you do? Do you have a duty to investigate? If so, how do you do so? And can you be liable for claims that invoke events occurring years ago?

The Legal Landscape

Someone suing for harassment unlawful under California law must show unwelcome verbal or physical conduct that was severe or pervasive enough to alter working conditions and create an abusive working environment for a reasonable person. Harassment plaintiffs suing under the California FEHA must first exhaust administrative remedies. That involves filing an administrative complaint within one year of the unlawful conduct and obtaining a right-to-sue letter. Once the letter issues, the plaintiff has one year to file a civil lawsuit.

There are three exceptions to the one-year rule: (1) someone who learns of the unlawful practice after the year may get a 90-day extension; (2) someone subjected to discriminatory violence or threat of violence (see Civil Code section 51.7) may get an extension of up to three years; and (3) someone victimized by unlawful practice while still a child can get an extension of up to one year after turning 18 years old.

How might the first exception come up, you ask? Well, say two employees make sexually charged statements via email about the complainant. She finds out about the emails a year or so later. Perturbed and believing that the emails have changed the terms and conditions of employment, she resigns and files an administrative complaint with the DFEH. While her claim would fall outside of the statutory period because the emails occurred than a year ago, her claim arguably might be subject to the 90-day exception because she learned of the "harassing conduct" when she learned of the emails.

Stale events can also be actionable under the "continuing violation" doctrine, if one part of the violation occurred within the limitations period. A violation can be continuing if the unlawful incidents that occurred before and within the limitations period were (1) sufficiently similar in kind, (2) occurred with reasonable frequency, and (3) did not obtain a degree of permanence. In other words, claims based on stale events can be pursued if they address timely events of a similar nature. Reasonable frequency refers to similar conduct that was not isolated, and permanency refers to whether the plaintiff was on notice that further efforts to end the unlawful conduct would be in vain.

Your Harassment Policy And The Legal and Non-Legal Reasons To Enforce It

A company's interest in preventing harassment is moral and organizational as well as legal. Preventing harassment and fostering civility and respect in the workplace are the right things to do. And employers with strong anti-harassment policies and periodic anti-harassment training can create a culture of compliance, reporting, and remediation that will encourage employees to seek redress with the company instead of through social media or litigation.

Employer policies generally prohibit discrimination and harassment in the workplace and require, or at encourage, employees to report promptly the harassment they experience or witness, so that the incidents can be properly investigated. Policies usually do not impose deadlines on when an employee must report harassment or discrimination.

What Do You Do With A Complaint?

(1) Always try to investigate

So if a stale claim lands on your desk, what do you do? The short answer is always investigate—no claim is too old. Policies usually both encourage reports and do not impose time limits on reports, so live by your policy. Doing so enforces the policy's integrity. Employees are more likely to follow policies if their employer holds itself to them.

A thorough investigation will lead to an employer's best decision and will in any event support the reasonableness of its decision as part of any legal defense. And failing to conduct an adequate investigation, while not itself actionable, can undermine the employer's legal defense. Failing to investigate a complaint—even a stale complaint—can also create exposure if the accused engages in further harassment against either the complainant or someone else the accused interacts with.

(2) Prompt and thorough investigations are key

Stale claims bring special challenges. Witnesses may no longer work with the company, and documentary evidence the complainant may once have had may no longer exist.

Nevertheless, like any investigation, the investigation of a stale complaint should be reasonably prompt and thorough. The complainant should be interviewed and the allegations impartially investigated. If the accused is no longer an employee, the employer should assure the complainant that the alleged conduct is not tolerated and should point to its policies for support.

After every investigation, an employer should follow up with the complainant to report the findings of the investigation and any remediation taken. The employer should ensure that any misconduct has ceased and that the complainant feels safe. The employer should also encourage the complainant to report any future incident of harassment and affirm that the complainant will suffer no retaliation for coming forward. And the employer should then revisit the situation with the complainant, after some reasonable interval, to ensure that there is no further complaint.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions