The #MeToo movement sprang out in October 2017, connecting victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault across the country. The movement gained fuel as the shameful acts of powerful producers, directors and employers were brought to light, helping victims claim a voice in a society fraught with sexual violence. The movement demonstrated the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment, leading to the public termination of alleged offenders in the workplace.
While the original #MeToo movement served as a way to give voice to victims of sexual harassment, the unfortunate second wave of a movement like #MeToo is often comprised of the financially-motivated weak cases from years ago. Actors have made preemptive statements regarding innocuous acts of the past that may now be more amplified because of the movement. Other actors may find themselves under fire for even consensual sexual acts that are reported in a way that implies misconduct on the part of a successful actor or other public figure because of the hypersensitivity within the media. Movements like #MeToo have the power to shift the public discussion on matters like sexual harassment in the workplace and may pervade the opinions and perspectives of potential juror members who are deciding a defendant’s guilt or innocence in a sexual assault case. For these reasons, it is critical for defendants facing false claims of sexual harassment or sexual assault to aggressively protect their legal interests from exaggerations or outright fabrications.
Consequences of False Claims of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Being on the receiving end of a false claim of sexual harassment can be a terrifying experience. There is a current epidemic of claims regarding sexual harassment as people respond to the media stories.
There may be a heightened sensitivity to anything that may be perceived as sexual harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, the perils that people face in the workplace for being falsely accused of sexual harassment are not being reported in the media or made part of the #MeToo conversation despite the good intentions behind the movement.
One of the quickest responses to a claim of sexual harassment is termination in the workplace. Employers may not want to face any additional liability for any perception that they are shielding sexual predators in the workplace. The company may only complete a cursory investigation before taking this drastic step that can significantly impact your livelihood. The employer may list your status as “not available for rehire,” further impeding your ability to find suitable replacement work after being falsely accused of sexual harassment.
Potential Consequences of Claims of Sexual Assault
Being falsely accused of sexual assault can also result in damage to a professional’s reputation. He or she may be scorned by the community. His or her family may be subject to harassment. His or her social life may be negatively impacted.
If charges are pursued against you for sexual assault, the potential consequences you face can be significant. While laws vary substantially by state, sexual assault can often be classified as a felony offense, depending upon the circumstances. A conviction for sexual assault may result in criminal consequences such as:
- Incarceration – Criminal defendants are often sentenced to longer terms of incarceration than other types of defendants.
- Fines – Some states assess large fines against defendants who are convicted of sexual assault.
- Restitution – Some states require defendants to pay victims of sexual assault compensation for any damages that the victim suffered, such as medical expenses or counseling expenses to deal with the emotional trauma of the event.
- Probation – Criminal defendants may be given probation for years during which time they are closely monitored and prevented from engaging in certain activities.
- Registration as a sex offender – Some states may require a defendant to register as a sex offender if convicted of sexual assault. This registration requirement may limit the defendant’s ability to find work and adequate housing.
Even when sexual assault charges do not rise to the felony level, they can still include significant criminal consequences. For example, California law provides that a conviction for misdemeanor sexual assault can result in a maximum jail sentence of six months or one year, depending on the circumstances, coupled with a fine up to $2,000 or $3,000 if the victim was your employee.
In addition to these criminal consequences, a defendant may also face a civil claim for sexual assault in which the victim can ask for monetary compensation for any harm done to him or her.
Responding to False Claims of Sexual Harassment or Sexual Assault
The key to aggressively defending against false claims of sexual harassment or sexual assault is to have professional legal assistance at the earliest stages. It is critical to quickly retain legal counsel who are experienced at defending against claims of sexual assault, even before a case has been filed. Experienced attorneys can often get charges dropped before an investigation is concluded. Additionally, they can ensure that your rights are protected and that law enforcement and prosecutors are held to the highest burden. They can protect you from warrant-less searches or devious law enforcement officers who try to trick you into admitting things that can later be used against you when you were simply providing innocent explanations.
Early investigation is critical to protect your rights. Your lawyer can complete an investigation into the sexual assault claims against you. If there is any physical evidence, they may be able to use this to prove your innocence. Often, sexual harassment cases are based solely on the word of the alleged victim. There may be insufficient evidence because this “victim” made up the accusations or is trying to cover up a consensual act that they now regret. In cases alleging sexual harassment, there is often little or no evidence that the prosecution can use against you and your attorney can argue that the prosecution cannot meet its high burden. Additionally, they can evaluate the victim’s credibility and thoroughly investigate if the victim has some reason to lie about the claims he or she is making.
To help your investigation, it is important that you document everything to prove your innocence. Keep a folder with emails from the alleged victim. Write down the names and phone numbers for any witnesses that may have seen or heard anything related to the claim. Do not delete any texts you have. Often, these communications will show that there was a back and forth between you and your accuser and not that he or she was a victim of sexual harassment.