State and local governments – many of whom are already facing new sexual harassment regulations and enforcement actions at the state level – are now subject to additional federal scrutiny and potential enforcement pursuant to a recently announced initiative by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

The DOJ on Feb. 28, 2018, announced its Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative (the Initiative), which seeks to combat workplace sexual harassment in the public sector. The DOJ's Initiative includes three primary components – enforcement, remediation and outreach.

At the enforcement level, the DOJ states that it will "continue to bring sex discrimination claims against state and local government employers with a renewed emphasis on sexual harassment charges."

From a remediation standpoint, the DOJ states that it "will also work to develop remedial measures that can be used to hold public sector employers accountable where Title VII violations have been found, including identifying changes to existing employer practices and policies that will result in safe work environments."

Additionally, the DOJ will conduct outreach to state and local government employers centering on five critical areas: 1) creating trusted and safe avenues for employees to report sexual harassment, 2) ensuring management support for anti-discrimination policies and practices, 3) implementing accountability measures to ensure the timely and effective resolution of sexual harassment complaints, 4) adopting comprehensive anti-sexual harassment policies and procedures that include regular, tailored, and interactive training for employees, and 5) providing safeguards against retaliation for persons who report sexual harassment and for employees who support them.

Concurrently with its Feb. 28, 2018, announcement of the Initiative, the DOJ filed its first related enforcement action against the city of Houston. In United States v. City of Houston (S.D. Tex., No. 4:18-cv-00644), the DOJ alleges the city of Houston violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by subjecting two female firefighters to a hostile work environment based on their sex and constructively discharging them in retaliation for their complaints of sex discrimination. The city has stated that its internal investigation did not identify any cognizable claims and that it will defend itself against the DOJ's complaint.

The DOJ's Initiative serves as yet another indication to state and local government employers that the intensive focus on their efforts to prevent workplace sexual harassment will persist for the foreseeable future. Holland & Knight will continue to monitor the nature and scope of the DOJ's enforcement actions pursuant to the Initiative to evaluate whether, in practice, the Initiative matches the aggressive approach the DOJ anticipates. Holland & Knight attorneys will continue to stand ready to assist state and local government clients in all aspects of their efforts to prevent sexual harassment, from evaluating and refining their existing sexual harassment policies and procedures through assisting with related investigations and claims defense.

Information contained in this alert is for the general education and knowledge of our readers. It is not designed to be, and should not be used as, the sole source of information when analyzing and resolving a legal problem. Moreover, the laws of each jurisdiction are different and are constantly changing. If you have specific questions regarding a particular fact situation, we urge you to consult competent legal counsel.