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Texas increases protection for workers charging harassment

Texas recently passed two new laws that will provide more protection for employees asserting sexual harassment claims under the state’s labor code. These employment law measures take effect on Sept. 1 and will make significant changes by increasing the statute of limitations period, expanding coverage, raising employer complaint response standards and increasing individual liability.

Statute of limitations

Current law requires that an employee must file a discrimination charge with the Texas Workforce Commission within 180 days of an unlawful employment practice before a lawsuit may be filed.

After Sept 1, workers will have a longer period of 300 days after the date of the alleged harassment to file their complaint with the Commission. The current 180-day period will still govern race, color age and other protected classes.

Employer definition

Current state law restricts sexual harassment or discrimination claims to employers with at least 15 employees. Beginning Sept. 1, the new law allows sexual harassment claims against any person who employs at least one worker.

Individual liability

The definition of employer is expanded. Currently, sexual harassment claims may be filed against an employer which includes any person who acts directly in an employer’s interest in relation to employees. There is no individual liability for any harassment claims.

Starting Sept 1, however, the list of persons who may be named individually as defendants and held liable in a sexual harassment complaint grows considerably. It will include supervisors, managers, human resources professionals, other employees and third parties.

Federal courts

Out-of-state employers routinely remove sexual harassment lawsuits from Texas state courts to federal courts because of diversity of citizenship. Federal courts are viewed as being more favorable to employers.

The new law will prohibit removal to federal court if a Texas defendant is added as defendant to a sexual harassment lawsuit. This may lead to fewer pre-trial dismissals of harassment lawsuits and may increase the settlement value of these claims.

Employer response

Employers commit an unlawful employment practice under the new law if sexual harassment of employee occurs and the employer or its agents knew that it was occurring and did not take immediate and appropriate corrective action. This is a higher measure than the prompt remedial action under current law. But immediate and appropriate corrective action was not defined.

Attorneys can assist employers with taking measures to assure compliance with this new law. They can also help protect their rights when claims are filed.