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Chapel Hill attorney: It's time to re-write sexual harassment laws

Posted December 11, 2017 6:17 p.m. EST
Updated December 11, 2017 9:18 p.m. EST

— In 1986, the United States Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment was part of gender discrimination found in the Civil Rights Act, but the definition was vague. The harassment had to be unwelcome, severe, pervasive and something a reasonable person would find offensive.

Chapel Hill attorney Laura Noble says it’s time to re-write the federal law and bring it in line with modern society.

"It’s a 53-year-old statute written before the time of cell phones and electronic devices," Noble said.

Noble says it’s one thing for a powerful woman in Hollywood to bring down a man with accusations of sexual harassment, but in the real world, victims who speak out often have a bad result.

"The consequences for them is usually that they're going to have something adverse happen to their career, or they're going to get fired," she said.

Victims have to rely on the federal law which is vague, outdated and up for interpretation by judges, she said.

"In some instances they have found things not to be sexual harassment that I think a jury of your peers would clearly find to be sexual harassment. Things like being groped, or someone trying to kiss you against your will, or someone sending you lewd photos where judges have said, 'That doesn't meet our standard,'" Noble said.

In the last few months, Noble has gotten dozens of inquiries from potential clients about sexual harassment cases. She says, at the moment, these case take up about a quarter of her caseload.

Noble would like to see an extension on the time in which victims have to report the behavior, which is currently just six months.

Noble also believes the law needs to be rewritten to create clear guidelines of what sexual harassment looks like in the workplace.

"This idea that what would a reasonable person find objectionable shouldn't vary from state to state, and judge to judge," she said. "If groping in North Carolina is considered sexual harassment, then it should be considered sexual harassment in Iowa or California."

Noble says it’s very important to know your company's policy on what sexual harassment is, and what the steps are in reporting it. She says all companies are supposed to have a policy, training and a specific procedure for reporting.

Currently, several lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed a law that would take away mandatory arbitration in these circumstances. Noble says this is a step in the right direction. Another step would be for North Carolina to create its own sexual harassment statute. Currently the state does not have one.