Why many women aren’t able to file sexual harassment lawsuits in NC

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A North Carolina law firm says it has had 500% more calls from women claiming sexual harassment in their office, in this post-Harvey Weinstein era.

"Awareness is there," says Attorney Laura Noble, with Noble Law Firm. "The problem is that state laws – in particular, the Carolinas – haven't kept up with where I think the national mindset is in the workplace."

Single mom and school bus driver Liza agrees. She says she didn't feed into continued unwanted advances of a supervisor that spanned at least two years. Things like waiting for her when it wasn't needed to be an in-person meeting, overtly hitting on her and one time, she says, grabbing himself.

"Within the first 90 days of the job we were all standing around and he was like, 'Something smells good," Liza said. "And I was like, 'Really?' And he was like, 'Oh, that's you.' And I said, 'Oh, that's Downy.' And I kept talking about whatever situation was at hand. And he said, 'MMMmmmmm. My Downy don't smell like that.' And then he grabbed his crotch."

But Liza – who says other comments and in-person meetings followed – says by the time she got up enough nerve to try legal action, she couldn't. North Carolina has a statute of limitations. Any workplace sexual harassment lawsuit must be brought within six months.

"Maybe it's past the statute of limitations, but in my mind it'll never pass," Liza said. "I will NEVER forget his comments to me. I will NEVER forget him grabbing himself in front of me."

We intentionally did not name the school district in the story in an effort to keep the focus on the issue of harassment, rather than the specific merit of this case. However, the district reached out this afternoon to say the allegations were fully investigated and they did not find evidence to support Liza's claims.

The time limit is just one reason why Noble says it's such an uphill battle for women. The other reason is that only 14 states and the District of Columbia have state laws against workplace sexual harassment. Neither one of the Carolinas is one of them. Because we have no state law, that means anyone wanting to sue has to use Title 7, a law enacted back in the 1960's. (The states that do have individual workplace sexual harassment laws include Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin and Washington DC.)

Having to file in federal court means finding a lawyer who can practice in federal court, a higher filing fee and going through the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

But Noble says the really tough part is convincing a federal judge not to dismiss your claim.

"A judge, who is typically an older man, statistically, is going to decide whether the touches on your breasts, the touches on your buttocks, the lewd comments, the text messages... whether that has affected your job in a way that would be legally prohibited under Title 7," she said. "So it's a massive uphill battle for any woman who is saying they've been sexually harassed."

Also, Noble said, be clear sexual harassment is NOT actually about sex.

"Study after study has shown it's based on power," she said. "CEO's of companies don't usually get harassed, because they're the top dog."

She also adds that this is not just about women who want to create drama and say someone is flirting with them.

"This idea that me asking you out for a cup of coffee is going to create a lawsuit, is ridiculous. That's not what the law says," Noble said. "It has to be unwelcome. So, if I ask you for a cup of coffee and you say 'no,' and then if I keep asking you and keep asking you and text you and show up at your home and then we're getting into sexual harassment because the conduct is unwelcome. We're not trying to create a code of civility in the workplace. We're not saying people can't date, get married, have relationships, flirt, we just have to be aware that you should be safe in the workplace from unwelcome sexual conduct."

Liza says she wasn't safe from it. But because she isn't in the statute of limitations, she can't bring a lawsuit for harassment. Which is in part why we're not naming the district where she worked, her supervisor's name or even her last name. There was no lawsuit and they're not culpable. There was no formal suit ever brought against them in Liza's case.

"I went to HR and filed complaints within the district," she said. "But that just made my supervisor mad."

Frustrated, sometimes in tears, Liza made a YouTube video detailing what she says happened. She said the harassment has been horrible to deal with, but she also hates that she doesn't feel listened to.

"I'm not rich. I'm not famous," she said. "How do I have people listen to me? Yes, my hashtag is #MeToo, but I also feel like my hashtag is #Invisible. I want it to become #Visible."

With all that said, Liza still wants her job. She says she loves the kids, loves bus driving and most of all, she doesn't want to quit out of principle.

"If I quit, he wins," she said through tears. "It's sad because I know what happened to me and I've been dealing with it for two years. I will not give up. I'm not going to give up a job I love in a field I've been working since '06. If I quit, then he wins. If I quit, then it's okay for you to be sexually harassed in your job."

If you feel you are being sexually harassed in the workplace, Noble said the best thing to do is document everything, tell a trusted ally or mentor and follow the guidelines set out in your employee handbook.

"And remember," she emphasizes, "the statute of limitations is only six months."

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