Legislative branch employees are protected under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (CAA) from unlawful sexual harassment. Below is a brief description of how these claims are processed and resolved under the CAA.
Unlawful harassment is a form of discrimination involving verbal, physical, or visual conduct of an offensive and discriminatory nature. While anti-discrimination laws are not civility codes and do not prohibit all inappropriate conduct at a workplace, these laws do exist to give employees the right to work in an environment free from discrimination, and from discriminatory intimidation, harassment, and ridicule.
Workplace harassment is illegal when the conduct is both severe and pervasive, or results in an adverse employment action. An adverse employment action is a significant change in employment status, such as firing, failing to promote, denying a transfer, giving a negative review or reassigning to a less desirable position. An adverse employment action causes significant changes in benefits, and other actions affecting the terms, conditions, and benefits of employment.
Harassment can occur anywhere in the workplace, such as an office or the hallways of Congress, or off-site, such as at happy hour or a retreat. The harasser can be a supervisor, co-worker, vendor, or almost anyone in the workplace. Illegal sexual harassment can occur between different sexes or the same sex.
Legislative Branch employees may contact the OOC for assistance in resolving harassment claims through a mandated legal dispute resolution process. An employee seeking to pursue a harassment claim must file a Formal Request for Counseling with the OOC no later than 180 days of the alleged incident to preserve the claim. An employee who brings a claim to the OOC may retain representation, such as an attorney, at any time during the dispute resolution process, at his or her expense.
Counseling with the OOC is strictly confidential and the employing office is not notified that the employee has filed the claim unless the employee decides to pursue the claim after the counseling period has ended. During counseling, an OOC counselor will meet with the employee to answer questions and inform him/her of the law and procedures under the CAA.
The counseling phase normally lasts for 30 days and provides the employee with an opportunity to assess his/her case before deciding whether to pursue the claim(s) beyond counseling. If counseling does not resolve the matter, the employee may request confidential mediation, during which the employing office, employee, and OOC mediator meet to discuss and resolve the matter. If the matter is not resolved in mediation, an employee may file an administrative complaint with the OOC, and an independent hearing officer will determine the outcome of the case in a confidential proceeding.
Alternatively, the employee may file his or her case in federal district court, where the case will become part of the public record. If an employee prevails in his/her case, the hearing officer or a court may order monetary awards and other appropriate remedies. Attorney’s fees, expert fees, and certain other costs may also be awarded. Civil penalties or punitive damages are not available under the CAA.
For additional information on harassment, the procedures of the OOC, or other rights under the CAA, please visit our website at www.ocwr.gov or call our office at 202-724-9250.