Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates the California Fair Employment and Housing Act also known as FEHA (Government Code §12920 et seq.), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an abusive, intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
Under Federal law, sexual harassment can be found in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:
The Fair Employment and Housing Act defines harassment because of sex as including sexual harassment, gender harassment and harassment based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The Fair Employment and Housing Commission regulations define sexual harassment as unwanted sexual advances or visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment includes many forms of offensive behavior and includes harassment of a person who is the same sex as the harasser. Under California law, illegal harassment may include, but is not limited to, the following:
Under California statutory law, discrimination, harassment, retaliation and an employer's failure to prevent such unlawful practices in connection with employment, are illegal. It is an "unlawful employment practice" for an employer because of the sex of any person (or other protected basis) to: (1) discriminate against the person in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment; (2) fire or otherwise discriminate against any person for opposing any forbidden practices; and/or (3) aid, assist, compel, or coerce the doing of any forbidden employment practices. In order to valid, sexual harassment must be proven to be either severe or pervasive (it does not need to be both).
The law also makes it illegal for an employer, based on sex/gender (or other protected basis), to harass an employee or "person performing services pursuant to a contract."
Harassment by a supervisor is unlawful if the employer knows or should have known of the harassment but fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. When the harasser is a supervisor, the employer is strictly liable to the employee. In such a case, the employee is only required to prove the harassment occurred and the amount of damages. If the harasser is not a supervisor, but rather a co-employee, the employee must prove the employer "knew or should have known" the harassment was occurring. Regardless, an employer has a duty to "take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring."
Whether the facts of any given case meet this standard is viewed from the perspective of a reasonable person in plaintiff's position. This is sometimes called the "reasonable woman" standard, although it applies to men as well. The work environment is evaluated by considering the "totality of the circumstances." The employer is required to address each bad act in the context of all the other bad acts. A jury may consider the frequency of the harassing or discriminatory conduct, its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance. A view of the events in chronological order enables the jury to see their relationship to one another, and consequently their meaning and significance.
Additionally, even though evidence of harassment of others might not be used to prove the employee found his or her workplace subjectively hostile, it is still highly relevant to prove the sexual harassment was severe or pervasive and that he employer knew or should have known of the misconduct. Recently, a California case held that an employee's evidence of the employer's alleged gender bias in the form of harassment of other women employees occurring outside plaintiff's presence and at times other than when plaintiff was employed was properly admissible as evidence of a discriminatory/biased intent or motive by the individual harasser. This is because a reasonable person may be affected by knowledge that other workers are being sexually harassed in the workplace, even if he or she does not personally witness that conduct.
It is also important to remember that a claim of sexual harassment for a hostile work environment need not have anything to do with sexual advances. For example, an employee who is mistreated because she is a woman (or because he is a man) could potentially have a claim for sexual harassment. An employee may also establish sexual harassment under FEHA by demonstrating that widespread sexual favoritism toward others was severe or pervasive enough to alter the working conditions of the complaining employee and create a hostile work environment.
This is by no means a complete discussion of California's laws pertaining to sexual harassment. Nor is it intended to be legal advice or a discussion of federal law or the law of another state. Always consult an attorney regarding the law and how it may or may not apply to your particular circumstances.
From the Premier Sexual Harassment Attorney Handling Cases in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, California
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