Recently, many women have come forward in reporting incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace. A wave of shock has flooded our communities after the perpetrators of the allegations have been A-List celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Laurer, as well as government representatives across the country. Unfortunately, although the identities of the accused perpetrators may be unexpected, the harsh reality is that this behavior in the work place is not so uncommon.
Another aspect of these emerging reports that carries an element of shock is the time frame of some of the allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment. In certain cases, the assault and harassment claims date back as far as 20-30 years. It goes without saying that the delayed time frame from the instance of sexual assault or sexual harassment to the instance of the reporting does not nullify or even diminish the severity of harm caused. In many states, the statute of limitations for bringing criminal charges against a perpetrator of sexual assault is very generous. For example, in New Jersey, there is no statute of limitations at all for bringing criminal charges for allegations of sexual assault. The purpose of this is to maximize the protections of the law for these types of serious crimes.
However, when it comes to civil remedies for sexual harassment, the law is a bit more stringent with its time limitations. In New Jersey, the statute of limitations for bringing a civil workplace sexual harassment claim is generally two years from the date of the discrete act. When the harassment is based on a pattern or series of acts, rather than an isolated incident, the statute of limitations become more muddied.
The “continuing violation doctrine”, which was adopted by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Shepherd v. Hunterdon Developmental Center, allows a plaintiff to pursue a claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) if he or she can demonstrate that each asserted act is a part of a pattern of harassment and at least one of those acts occurred within the statutory limitations period. In other words, where an individual is subject to a continual pattern of sexual harassment, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until those wrongful actions cease. Only then, does the two-year clock start ticking.
Although, this approach does not have the same maximizing impact as the criminal statute of limitations, it does allow more flexibility in allowing a plaintiff to pursue civil remedies for being subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace.