Sexual harassment in the workplace and the #MeToo Movement

March 14, 2018 | 9:25 am


Chain | Cohn | Stiles workers’ compensation* attorney Beatriz Trejo recently made a presentation in front of the Kern County Paralegal Association focused on ethical obligations to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, and the #MeToo Movement. Below is a synopsis of that “Minimum Continuing Legal Education” presentation. 

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* Please note: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting wrongful termination and sexual harassment cases *

Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is an ethical obligation of all employees, in addition to a serious legal issue.

More recently, we have seen uprising of people who have gone public with their stories of sexual harassment, assault and abuse, and systemic sexism. The “Me Too” hashtag campaign has spread virally to denounce sexual assault and harassment, and millions have used the hashtag to come forward with their own experiences.

Below is a timeline of legal and societal landmarks that led to our current state:

  • 1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin. It is commonly referred to as “Title VII,” because that’s the part of the act that covers employment. Title VII covers both men and women, but its original intent was to protect women in the workplace. This remains its main emphasis today.
  • 1986: In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court rules that sexual harassment can be sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. The case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson ruled that speech in itself can create a hostile environment, which violates the law.
  • 1991: The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is passed. Congress modifies Title VII to add more protection against discrimination in the workplace. Among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 allows harassment and discrimination plaintiffs the right to a jury trial in federal court. It also gives plaintiffs the right to collect compensatory and punitive damages for the first time, subject to a cap based on the size of the employer.
  • 1993: Harris v. Forklift Systems is handed down. Here the plaintiff worked as a manager of a company that rented heavy equipment to construction companies. Forklift’s president continually made the plaintiff the target of comments such as, “You’re a woman, what do you know?,” and, “We need a man as the rental manager.”
  • 2004: Facebook is launched.
  • 2006: Tarana Burke uses the term “Me Too” to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment.
  • 2006: Twitter is launched.
  • October 2017: Actress Ashley Judd accuses media mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. Actress Alissa Milano tweets, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘Me Too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Half a million people responded to the tweet in 24 hours. After the tweet, Facebook reported 12 million posts and comments regarding #MeToo. Within 24 hours 45 percent of all U.S. Facebook users knew someone who had posted #MeToo. The stories posted recounted stories in the entertainment industry, sports, politics, military, and law.
  • December 2017: The #MeToo movement “Silence Breakers” are named 2017’s “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine.

Today, we all continue to be protected against harassment under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules, which state:

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.

Still, harassment continues. In fact, an October 2017 poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found the following:

  • 48 percent of women stated that they have received an unwelcome sexual advance or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature at work.
  • 41 percent of men stated that they have observed inappropriate sexual conduct directed to women at work.
  • 63 percent of Americans in October 1991 believed sexual harassment occurred in most workplaces.
  • 66 percent of Americans in October 2017 believe sexual harassment occurs in most workplaces.

But legal remedies to fight against harassment continue to exist as well. Claims may be filed with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the courts. And if the law is violated, damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs may be ordered.

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If you or a someone you know needs assistance with a potential accident, injury or workers’ compensation case, it’s important to contact an attorney, call the lawyers at Chain | Cohn | Stiles for a free consultation at 661-323-4000, or visit the website chainlaw.com.

To learn more about workers’ compensation associate attorney Beatriz Trejo, click here.

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*NOTICE: Making a false or fraudulent Workers’ Compensation claim is a felony subject to up to 5 years in a prison or a fine of up to $150,000 or double the value of the fraud, whichever is greater, or by both imprisonment and fine.

5 new California laws in 2018 call for safer streets and workplaces

December 27, 2017 | 9:17 am


The New Year also means new laws for California.

Several laws will take effect starting Jan. 1, including several transportation-related rules and changes. They include laws related to marijuana and driving, seat belts on buses, and a new blood alcohol concentration limit for Uber drivers.

Because Chain | Cohn | Stiles focuses on motor vehicle accidents and other roadway related injury cases, we wanted to share some of these changes as we start 2018. And since the Bakersfield-based law firm also represents victims of workplace harassment, we also share one new law related to employer supervisor training.

Learn a little more about these new laws below, courtesy of the California Department of Motor Vehicles:

Marijuana Use in Vehicles (SB 65): This law prohibits using marijuana or marijuana products while driving or riding as a passenger in a vehicle. This includes smoking marijuana and consuming edibles in vehicles. Similar to the “open container” laws, marijuana products must be locked away or sealed in a container. If you break this law, you’ll get a negligent operator point counts. The same goes for motorcycle riders. The new law will be implemented after officers pull motorists over for separate moving violations.

Commercial Buses and Seat Belts (SB 20): This law requires passengers on commercial buses to put on a seat belt. Kids over 8 years old but under 16 years old won’t be allowed to ride unless they are restrained by a seat belt; otherwise, parents and legal guardians will be fined $20 on the first violation, and $50 thereafter.

DUI, Passenger for Hire (AB 2687): This one begins July 1, 2018, and this law makes it illegal for anyone to drive with a blood alcohol concentration of .04 percent or higher if there is a passenger in the vehicle who has hired the driver — like Ubers or Lyfts. This is a higher standard than the current .08 BAC for all drivers. Punishment is a suspended driver’s license if convicted.

Motorcycle Training (AB 1027): This law authorizes the DMV to accept a certificate of satisfactory completion of any motorcyclist-training program approved by the California Highway Patrol in the place of a required motorcycle skills test. Applicants for an original motorcycle license or motorcycle endorsement under 21 years of age are still required to complete a novice motorcyclist-training program.

Harassment Training (SB 396): Especially relevant now during the “Me Too” movement, employers with 50 or more employees — who are already legally required to conduct two hours of sexual harassment training every two years — must include training for supervisors that includes harassment based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.

* Update: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting wrongful termination and sexual harassment cases *

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If you or someone you know is injured in a vehicle accident at the fault of someone, contact the lawyers at Chain | Cohn | Stiles by calling (661) 323-4000 or visit the website chainlaw.com.

#MeToo: How to protect yourself from sexual harassment, assault and abuse

November 29, 2017 | 7:00 am


* Update: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting wrongful termination and sexual harassment cases *

Recently, the United States has seen an uprising of women (and men, too) who have gone public with their stories of sexual harassment, assault and abuse, and systemic sexism, particularly in the world of Hollywood.

The “Me Too” campaign has spread virally to denounce sexual assault and harassment in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer and executive Harvey Weinstein. Millions of people throughout the world have used the #MeToo hashtag to come forward with their own experiences.

Sadly, these types of cases are all too familiar in Kern County as well. In fact, Chain | Cohn | Stiles has represented dozens of victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, and sex assault and abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers, employment supervisors, and others in roles of power.

Earlier this year, Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney Neil Gehlawat contributed an article to the Kern Business Journal that outlined how sexual assault and harassment victims could fight back, specifically in the workplace. That article below has been re-purposed here:

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Sexual harassment is, unfortunately, still a prevalent occurrence in the workplace.

According to a recent study conducted at the South by Southwest conference in 2016, two-thirds of women reported having experienced “unwanted sexual attention” at work. Moreover, a survey conducted by Cosmopolitan magazine revealed that one in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 have been sexually harassed at work. Sexual harassment is evidently more prevalent in the service industry, where a 2014 survey by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 90 percent of women feel forced to “curry favor” with their customers when working for tips.

Even worse, 70 percent of women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace do not report for fear of repercussions, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is a disappointing statistic, because there are laws in place both in California and in the United States to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace.

In California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, applies to both public and private employers and prohibits sexual harassment against employees, applicants, volunteers, unpaid interns and even contractors in the workplace. You can file a complaint online by visiting the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) website, but it is recommended that you contact an attorney before making such a complaint. The statute of limitations in California requires employees to obtain a right to sue notice letter from the DFEH within one year of the alleged harassment. The employee then has one year from the date of the right to sue notice letter to file a lawsuit.

Moreover, the FEHA requires employers of 50 or more employees to provide sexual harassment training to supervisory employees. The FEHA department permits employees to submit complaints if they have reason to believe that their employer has not complied with this requirement.

Sexual harassment is also prohibited under federal law. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment can range from inappropriate sexual jokes, to inappropriate touching. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically protects employees from sex-based discrimination, which includes sexual harassment, in the workplace and applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

I advise victims of sexual harassment to take the following steps.

  • First, tell the person harassing you to stop. You may do so in person, but you should also put your request in writing; for example, in the form of an email.
  • If this does not work, or if you are uncomfortable about taking such action, consult your employment manual. You need to follow the protocol laid out in the employment manual, if it exists.
  • If it does not exist, you should notify your human resources department or a supervisor, and inform them – in person, and in writing – about the sexual harassment. If the harassment persists, even despite taking the above steps, then you should contact an attorney immediately to weigh your options.

It is illegal under both state and federal law for an employer to retaliate against an employee for making a sexual harassment complaint. If you are the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, document your complaints in writing, take action, and always remember that the law is on your side.

* Note: Neil Gehlawat is no longer an attorney at Chain | Cohn | Stiles *

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Contact Chain | Cohn | Stiles at 661-323-4000, or visit the website Chainlaw.com.

Sexual harassment in the workplace persists, but with the law on the victim’s side

February 15, 2017 | 8:48 am


The following article written by Chain | Cohn | Stiles lawyer Neil Gehlawat appeared in the February-March 2017 issue of the Kern Business Journal. To view the PDF print version of the Kern Business Journal click here, and read the entire publication, click here

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* Please note: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting sexual harassment cases *

* Neil Gehlawat is no longer an attorney with Chain | Cohn | Stiles *

Sexual harassment is, unfortunately, still a prevalent occurrence in the workplace.

According to a recent study conducted at the South by Southwest conference in 2016, two-thirds of women reported having experienced “unwanted sexual attention” at work. Moreover, a survey conducted by Cosmopolitan magazine revealed that one in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 have been sexually harassed at work. Sexual harassment is evidently more prevalent in the service industry, where a 2014 survey by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 90 percent of women feel forced to “curry favor” with their customers when working for tips.

Even worse, 70 percent of women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace do not report for fear of repercussions, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is a disappointing statistic, because there are laws in place both in California and in the United States to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace.

In California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, applies to both public and private employers and prohibits sexual harassment against employees, applicants, volunteers, unpaid interns and even contractors in the workplace. You can file a complaint online by visiting the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) website, but it is recommended that you contact an attorney before making such a complaint. The statute of limitations in California requires employees to obtain a right to sue notice letter from the DFEH within one year of the alleged harassment. The employee then has one year from the date of the right to sue notice letter to file a lawsuit.

Moreover, the FEHA requires employers of 50 or more employees to provide sexual harassment training to supervisory employees. The FEHA department permits employees to submit complaints if they have reason to believe that their employer has not complied with this requirement.

Sexual harassment is also prohibited under federal law. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment can range from inappropriate sexual jokes, to inappropriate touching. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically protects employees from sex-based discrimination, which includes sexual harassment, in the workplace and applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

I advise victims of sexual harassment to take the following steps.

  • First, tell the person harassing you to stop. You may do so in person, but you should also put your request in writing; for example, in the form of an email.
  • If this does not work, or if you are uncomfortable about taking such action, consult your employment manual. You need to follow the protocol laid out in the employment manual, if it exists.
  • If it does not exist, you should notify your human resources department or your supervisor, and inform them – in person, and in writing – about the sexual harassment. If the harassment persists, even despite taking the above steps, then you should contact an attorney immediately to weigh your options.

It is illegal under both state and federal law for an employer to retaliate against an employee for making a sexual harassment complaint. If you are the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, document your complaints in writing, take action, and always remember that the law is on your side.

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MEDIA COVERAGE / RELATED ARTICLES

Employers: Avoid potential wrongful termination lawsuits by following these tips

February 10, 2016 | 9:00 am


NOTE: The article below, written by Chain | Cohn | Stiles wrongful termination attorney Matthew Clark, appeared in the February/March issue of the Kern Business Journal. The bi-monthly publication by The Bakersfield Californian showcases business and industry developments across Kern County.

To see the entire publication online, click here. To see the article in the Kern Business Journal, click here

* Please note: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting wrongful termination cases *

Neither I nor my firm Chain | Cohn | Stiles handle cases for employers. In fact, we do quite the opposite. We represent employees who have been wrongfully terminated. With this in mind, I offer you some suggestions on what I look for in a wrongful termination case, or, as an employer, some things you should avoid.

When evaluating a claim for wrongful termination, I first look to see if the employee was subject to an employment contract. We see these most often with employees who are members of a union. The union typically negotiates a collective bargaining agreement, and that agreement often times controls the termination of the employment agreement. For example, an employment contract may require that the employer terminate an employee for cause. In most cases I see, the employee is “at-will,” meaning there is no employment contract.

Second, I look to see if my potential client’s employer violated California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). FEHA strives to prevent discrimination in the workplace. If an employee is terminated for a discriminatory purpose, that employee likely has a claim under FEHA. FEHA prevents discrimination based on age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability, among other things. In Kern County, we primarily see cases involving age discrimination.

Age discrimination falls under the regulatory authority of both FEHA and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), a Federal act.

At first blush, age discrimination is simple. If an employer fires and employee over 40 years of age, and then replaces them with someone substantially younger, that fired employee has established a “prima facie” case for age discrimination. Once the fired employee establishes a prima facie case for age discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that the termination was not discriminatory; hence, the employer must prove that the employee was terminated for a legitimate, non-discriminatory, business purpose. If the employer is successful, the employee may claim that the non-discriminatory purpose was simply a pre-text, and that in actuality the termination was discriminatory – and so the circle of allegations goes.

Oftentimes, the motivation for terminating an employee is mixed. For example, an employer may have acted with discrimination, by firing an employee in their 60s while replacing that employee with someone in their 20s, but the employer may also have evidence that the older employee was failing to satisfactorily perform their job duties. These “mixed-motive” terminations were recently addressed by the California Supreme Court in Harris v. Santa Monica. Harris requires, amongst other things, that the terminated employee show that unlawful discrimination was a substantial motivating factor in the termination. If the employer can show that the termination would have happened anyway, without discrimination, the damages the employee may be entitled to are greatly reduced.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to address the complex issues surrounding wrongful termination cases in this short article. Accordingly, I advise any employers with questions to seek out qualified human resources professionals.

For more information related to wrongful termination cases and employment law, visit chainlaw.com.

— Matthew Clark is a senior partner at Chain | Cohn | Stiles where he focuses on wrongful death, wrongful termination and motor vehicle accident cases, among other injury cases for people of Kern County.

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*NOTICE: Making a false or fraudulent Workers’ Compensation claim is a felony subject to up to 5 years in a prison or a fine of up to $150,000 or double the values of the fraud, whichever is greater, or by both imprisonment and fine.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles takes on wrongful termination, discrimination case against Bakersfield business

October 24, 2014 | 10:11 am


* Please note: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting wrongful termination cases *

For several years, Adam Rendon worked at Bakersfield’s Best Pawn on Chester Avenue. There, he was subjected to derogatory remarks from his supervisors and coworkers.

At one point, when he ignored the comments, his coworker pointed a gun at him and pulled back the hammer. The gun was unloaded. On another occasion, his colleague told him, “I don’t like me no queers,” and then fired a nail gun on concrete to make a loud “bang.” Rendon, believing that Jimenez had fired an actual gun, experienced heart palpitations and shortness of breath and was admitted to an emergency room at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.

Then, in June 2011, Rendon published a book that detailed his difficult upbringing and revealed he was gay. From that point, he was continuously subjected to severe and pervasive harassment from his coworkers because of his sexual orientation that included employees firing guns at a picture of Rendon attached to a wall at the back of the store.

In February this year, Rendon was fired.

The Bakersfield wrongful termination lawyers at Chain | Cohn | StilesMatt Clark and Neil Gehlawat — have filed a lawsuit against pawn shop owner Donald Younger, manager Jose Santoyo and employee Richard Jimenez for harassment and discrimination. The Bakersfield Californian highlighted the case in its Oct. 24 edition, which you can read here. See the article in the newspaper here.

“The bottom line is that everyone is entitled to work in an environment free of hostility and discrimination,” said Chain | Cohn | Stiles lawyer Neil Gehlawat. “Unfortunately for Adam, he was denied this basic right. After self-publishing his book about his difficult upbringing, in which he disclosed his sexual orientation, he was subjected to an array of homophobic remarks, slurs, and even violence by his co-workers. And to make matters worse, when he complained about this behavior to the owner of the store, he was subjected to even more hostility, retaliation, and was ultimately terminated.

Gehlawat continued: “By filing this lawsuit, Adam wants to send a message to Bakersfield’s Best Pawn, and to all employers, that every employee deserves to work in a hostile-free environment, regardless of their age, race, gender, or in his case, sexual orientation.”

Rendon, with the assistance of Chain | Cohn | Stiles, is seeking compensatory damages from Bakersfield’s Best Pawn including lost wages, bonuses and retirement benefits as well as general damages for mental pain, anguish and emotional distress. The lawsuit also demands punitive damages to punish the pawn shop’s owner and employees who either engaged in the harassment or didn’t do anything to stop it.

* Editor’s Note: Neil Gehlawat is no longer an attorney with Chain | Cohn | Stiles *

Chain | Cohn | Stiles on The Groove: How to know if you have a case against your employer

October 2, 2014 | 4:00 am


* Update: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting wrongful termination and sexual harassment cases *

Losing a job when you didn’t deserve to lose it, or dealing with a hostile work environment can be traumatic. Unfortunately, these situations happen all too often.

The reality is that employment law tends to be very favorable for employers, making it that much more important to contact an attorney who handles employment law cases right away, if you think you’ve been wrongfully terminated, sexually harassed in the workplace, or are dealing with an employment-related injury. Having an attorney will keep you from making mistakes, or agreeing to things that may negatively impact your ability to pursue a case. Secondly, an attorney will be able to inform you of the necessary steps you must take before taking any action against your employer.

These are just some of the tips provided by the Bakersfield wrongful termination and employment law attorney Neil Gehlawat of Chain | Cohn | Stiles recently while on the air with Sheri Ortiz on The Groove 99.3.

He also discussed how to know if you have a case, the necessary steps to take if you think you have a case, and other tips for employment cases.

You can listen to the two short segments here:

Employment law cases are essentially divided into two types, shared Gehlawat:

  • Wrongful termination
  • Hostile work environment/sexual harassment

The agency in California that oversees employment-related matters is the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The law in California requires employees to “exhaust their administrative remedies” before pursuing legal action against their employer. That means that employees in most cases need to obtain a “Right to Sue” letter from department before they can sue their employer in court. Directions for doing this can be found on the department website (www.dfeh.ca.gov), but it is highly recommended that you contact an attorney before filling out any forms with department.

Provided that you are an at-will employee, in California, the law permits employers to hire and fire employees at will, provided that the hiring or firing decisions are not discriminatory in nature, or do not violate public policy.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits employers from retaliating against employees, or subjecting them to a hostile work environment, because they are members of a protected class.  “Protected class” means (and is not limited to) age, religion, national origin, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and others. In other words, an employer cannot fire you because you are African American, or because you are a senior citizen and replace you with someone much younger, or because you are Jewish, for example. If you believe that being part of a protected class is the reason for retaliatory action taken against you, you should consider speaking with an attorney.

There are some other instances where you may have a case, but those instances are limited. For example, if you are a whistle blower, meaning you report the wrongful or illegal activity of your employer to a higher-up and you are then fired or disciplined for it, you may have a case. Or if you’re injured on the job, and file a workers’ compensation* claim, your employer cannot fire you. In the last case, they must also make an effort to engage in a good faith interactive process to see if they can reasonably accommodate you, even with injuries you have sustained on the job.

Finally, Gehlawat shared some tips.

It is important for employees to always put things in writing. Employment cases always turn into “he-said, she-said” cases, and putting things on writing can go a long way to help your case. If you’re having an issue at work, send an email or write a letter, and notify your supervisor or human resources representative. Keep records of everything you put in writing so that it is documented and it does not get lost. Second, if you’re being harassed or subjected to a hostile work environment, you need to report it in writing. You need to give your employer a reasonable opportunity to correct the problem, and if you do not, it may negatively affect your case.

Gehlawat said if you take just two things away from this blog post and the radio spot, it’s this:

  • Talk to an attorney early.
  • Document everything in writing.

* Editor’s Note: Neil Gehlawat is no longer an attorney with Chain | Cohn | Stiles *

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*NOTICE: Making a false or fraudulent Workers’ Compensation claim is a felony subject to up to 5 years in a prison or a fine of up to $150,000 or double the values of the fraud, whichever is greater, or by both imprisonment and fine.