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Legally Speaking: What you need to know about sexual harassment claims

FILE - In this April 21, 2016, file photo, Matt Lauer, co-host of the NBC "Today" television program, appears on set in Rockefeller Plaza, in New York. NBC News announced Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, that Lauer was fired for "inappropriate sexual behavior." (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey and, on Wednesday, Matt Lauer (remember, everyone is innocent until proven guilty).

Could you be next?

If you are male and work around other people, you might be searching your memory to see if you have said or done anything in your past that could cause a co-worker, or anyone for that matter, to claim you sexually assaulted them, harassed them or created a hostile work environment.

In recent weeks, we have seen a wave of celebrities, comedians, actors, news anchors and politicians accused of inappropriate sexual conduct. For every big name out there, it is safe to assume there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of “regular” Americans who have also been accused or soon will be.

Our society has reached a tipping point where even our most beloved figures are being called out on their bad behavior.

Legally speaking, what does this mean? What does Arizona law say? What do you do if you are accused? What do you do if you are the victim?

If you work in an office, chances are you have been required to watch a video on sexual harassment in the workplace. The basics are this: It doesn’t matter what your intent is, if you say something to someone or touch them and they take offense at it, then you could be accused of sexual harassment/assault or the like.

This could result in your termination, a civil lawsuit or, worse, a criminal prosecution.

Let’s look at the criminal side first. Under Arizona criminal law 13-1406, “a person commits sexual assault by intentionally or knowingly engaging in sexual intercourse or oral sexual contact with any person without consent of such person.”

Under 13-2921, harassment can occur in multiple ways. One way is if, with intent to harass or with knowledge that the person is harassing another person, the person repeatedly commits an act or acts that harass another person.

“Harassment means conduct that is directed at a specific person and that would cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed, annoyed or harassed and the conduct in fact seriously alarms, annoys or harasses the person,” the law reads.

If a person is convicted of either of these they can face the serious consequences of probation or even prison time.

Now let’s look at the civil side, which is more common. Although jail time is not a consequence, loss of job, civil lawsuits and shame are on the list.

According to both federal and Arizona law, sexual harassment claims can involve unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This can include quid pro quo, meaning the person’s job is dependent on sexual favors or a hostile work environment, where the harassment is based on a wider array of actions.

Here are some examples that may seem innocent but could form the basis of allegations:

• Repeatedly asking someone out
• Telling someone they look “hot” or even “beautiful”
• Staring at someone or looking them up and down
• Touching someone during photographs or videos
• Telling sexual jokes including homosexual jokes (emails count)
• Commenting on where women “belong” or that this is a “man’s job”
• Asking other men out for employer-sponsored events but not women (i.e. golf, client dinners, poker nights etc.)
• Touching someone anywhere — on their shoulder, around their shoulders, hugs, bro-hugs, lower backs, hands, forearms, etc.)

Granted, if a case were to be initiated, the victim would have to prove their case and a reasonable person standard would apply. In other words, would a reasonable person in the same or similar circumstances feel the same as the victim?

With that being said, if you are a victim, you have the right to file a complaint and stand up for yourself. No one is allowed to bully and harass you.

If you believe it is criminal, call the police.

If it happens in your workplace, go talk to human resources.

Above all, if you have any questions at all, I recommend you speak to a lawyer. Cases don’t always go to the extreme and it could be that starting the process will end the harassment quickly.

Bottom line, DON’T BE THE SUBJECT OF ALLEGATIONS. Stop and really think about how you act in the workplace and around others.

Are you too touchy? Are you too locker-room? Do you stare? Do you leave people out?

You may think that I am just being overcautious here, but do you want to be a Matt Lauer or a Bill O’Reilly (remember – everyone is innocent until proven guilty under our laws, but we know that isn’t the standard in the court of public opinion)?

Of course not. Play it safe, think about how you act and make changes if necessary. All it takes is one time to rock your world.

You may eventually be found “innocent” but you will lose a lot during the process it takes to prove that.

Ladies, this goes for you too. Men are not always the aggressors, and women are not always the victims.

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