When unwanted sexual behavior at work goes too far, many decide that enough is enough and quit their positions. The question is, does doing so preclude the right to complain later? In other words, can an employee legally complain about sexual harassment even after leaving a job?

One employer said the answer to that question is emphatically, no.

The situation involved a New York UBS Financial Services, Inc. intern, Samantha Lambui, hired by financial advisor, James Collins, who paid Lambui out of his own salary. After several months of allegedly unwelcome sexual advances and conditions placed on her advancement to full time status, Lambui quit. Later, when she visited the HR department to complain about the treatment, she was told that her decision to quit precluded her right to complain.

Thereafter, the intern filed a suit against the firm with the New York Human Rights Commission. The Commission dismissed the case sending it to federal court where it is now pending.

The circumstances of the case could prove influential in sexual harassment cases across the nation. Today, 14 percent of women who experience sexual harassment quit. Quitting because of sexual harassment has a number of consequences – though it is unclear whether doing so prevents a former employee from complaining to company administrators.

Consequences of Quitting after Sexual Harassment

The Internet is full of advice for employees who experience sexual harassment. The majority opinion is that quitting is not the best idea. This is due to the fact that quitting a job can close the door to several unemployment opportunities.

Namely, quitting makes it almost impossible to receive unemployment benefits. Unemployment benefits will only be granted in the event that an employee is laid off a former position. Thus quitting can thwart chances of receiving monetary aid after the position concludes.

However, quitting does not preclude filing a lawsuit or a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for violations of employment rights.

Complaining About Sexual Harassment

Lambui’s experiences may make employees think twice about complaining about sexual harassment after quitting, but many are also afraid to complain while still on the job. Employees may fear retaliation, such as failed promotions or unsatisfactory job evaluations or even termination. These actions can jeopardize a career and often prevent those who experience sexual harassment from speaking out.

However, employees should be aware that their rights are protected by federal, and in most cases, state laws. Federal law protects those working in companies with 15 or more employees from discrimination, discriminatory harassment and retaliation based on membership in protected categories. These include race, color, national origin, age, religion, disability, and most importantly, sex.

The law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, specifically protects employees in all areas of the employment process including hiring, firing, promotions, benefits and compensation. It also requires an employer to put a stop to sexual harassment when an employee brings it to attention or when the employer knows or should have known that sexual harassment is occurring.

Title VII also prohibits discriminatory retaliation. This means that it is a violation of federal law for an employer to retaliate against an employee who complains about sexual harassment. Moreover, it is also unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee for participating in discrimination court proceedings or for filing a charge of discrimination or harassment with the EEOC.

Filing a Charge With the EEOC

Even if an employer refuses to hear an employee complain about sexual harassment after quitting, the employee can still file a charge with the state employment rights offices or with the EEOC. The EEOC is a federal agency responsible for enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

A charge may be filed while an employee is still employed or after the employee has quit as long as the charge is filed no later than 180 days after the last incident of sexual harassment. This is the EEOC deadline for filing charges and must be observed in order for the case to move forward.

Once a charge is filed, an EEOC investigator assists with gathering facts and information on the case in order to determine whether the agency can provide representation in settlement negotiations or in filing a suit against an employer in court. In the event that the EEOC does not deem the case sufficient for representation, it will issue a Notice of Right to Sue. This notice allows the employee to pursue the case in court via his or her own legal representation.

Dealing with State Level Employment Rights Offices

When an employee has a sexual harassment issue, it is mandatory that the case begin with the EEOC before it can be filed in court. The EEOC has a working relationship with over 200 state-based agencies that can also handle complaints of sexual harassment. These agencies, such as the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in California, are commonly referred to as FEPAs (Fair Employment Practice Agencies). It is possible to file a charge of sexual harassment with either the EEOC or your state FEPA office.

It is important to note that the time limit for filing a charge of sexual harassment could be different from the federal law time limit if an employment begins the charge filing process under state law. In these instances, the deadline will be extended from 180 days to 300 days if the state FEPA enforces a law on the same basis as the federal law on sexual harassment.

Can You Complain After Quitting Your Job?

Yes.  Sexual harassment complaints can come at any time during the course of your experience. Though company policy may preclude a complaint after a position is ended, it may still be beneficial to contact the HR department in order to ensure that the company is on notice of your complaint. Even after quitting, an employee can file formal charges of sexual harassment under either state or federal law with the EEOC or the FEPA in their state.