Sexual harassment cases have not always been given the attention they deserve. It has only been in recent years that the legal system has begun to take allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace more seriously. These cases fall under the general practice area of workplace discrimination. Though there are federal laws that make sexual harassment illegal, California has also implemented some of the strictest anti-discrimination and anti-harassment statutes. As a result, there are various complex laws that require experience and skill to effectively navigate. Sexual Harassment Attorney is an experienced law firm that can help you push back against harassment in the workplace. We serve clients all over the Orange County, California area as well as all of California in general.
Federal Sexual Harassment Laws
Sexual harassment is broadly defined as an unwanted and unreciprocated sexual pursuit, coercion, or bullying as well as inappropriately promising professional rewards or benefits in exchange for sexual favors. It falls under the broader category of general discrimination in the workplace as delineated by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This section of the law explicitly prohibits any forms of discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or nationality. This subsection of the wider law only applies to companies with 15 or more workers, including federal, state, or local governments. Because it is a federal law it applies to both Orange County and California residents.
Though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was groundbreaking at the time that it was passed by Congress, it does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment. It only prohibits discrimination on the basis of someone’s sex, thereby making the law limited in some respects. However, there have been major strides made at the state level to protect the rights of vulnerable employees. California has some of the strictest laws on the books that are continuously being updated to be more reactive to various social developments.
California Sexual Harassment Laws
There has been a recent push in the state legislature to take sexual harassment more seriously. This is due to a variety of factors, including the fact that general awareness of its prevalence and severity has increased over recent decades. For years victims have suffered in silence and bore the brunt of this inappropriate workplace behavior. They were afraid to speak out due to judgment, retaliation, or some combination of both.
Current laws specify that companies (including companies based in Orange County) with 50 or more workers must provide compulsory sexual harassment education and training to all of their employees, hold a worker personally liable if they inflict retaliation against another worker who is complaining, permit harassment suits to be brought by non-employees, and require that all companies maintain decade-long complaint records of harassment and be able to provide them if necessary to investigators. There is a current debate in the California State Assembly whether to expand all of these stipulations to companies with 5 or more workers.
In addition to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employees in California are also protected by the Fair Employment and Housing Act of 1980 (also known as FEHA). Unlike Title VII, FEHA explicitly prohibits sexual harassment. It also differentiates between sex discrimination and sexual harassment. The former is when a person is hired, fired, demoted, paid less, or discriminated against on the basis of their gender. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is when an employee is confronted with unwelcome sexual advances, language or images that are explicit, unwanted body contact, sexual references or innuendo, threatening sexual behavior, or promises of workplace benefits in exchange for sexual favors. Both an individual and a company can be held liable in a harassment case, particularly if the victim can prove that the company did nothing to protect the said victim from the patterns of harassment.
Furthermore, there are generally considered to be two categories of sexual harassment cases in California:
- Quid pro quo sexual harassment. This happens when getting a term of employment is dependent upon submitting to unwelcome advances of a sexual nature. These can either be an offer (like a promotion, raise, or some kind of amenity) or a threat (like a reduction in pay, a demotion, or even termination). These threats and/or offers can either be explicit or implicit.
- Hostile work environment sexual harassment. This occurs when there is a persistent and repeated environment of harassment. The “hostile work environment” is said to occur when the victim is subjected to an environment that is offensive, abusive, oppressive, hostile, and/or intimidating due to a culture of pervasive sexual harassment. In these cases, victims generally have to prove that there was more than one action that occurred.
Neither of these two categories is explicitly delineated in California harassment laws. They were rather established by a series of court cases.
Finally, in 2013 Governor Jerry Brown signed a law (SB 292) specifying that sexual harassment cases need not be motivated by sexual desire. This is part of a general idea that these laws can promote a general “civility code” in the California workplace.
Who Is Protected by FEHA?
Under FEHA, it is illegal if an employee is discriminated against on the basis of their:
- Ethnicity and/or race
- Their nationality or cultural identity
- Age (either young or old)
- Any kind of physical disability or health condition
- Any kind of mental disability or psychological condition
- The status of their immigration
- Gender or sex
- Their sexual orientation
- Any kind of political beliefs or affiliation
There is enough room for interpretation in the law to include any other “illegitimate basis” for discriminating against an employee.
If you are a resident of Orange County and feel you have been discriminated against on the basis of one of these characteristics, you are protected under both FEHA and Title VII. However, since FEHA is stricter, it is generally best to pursue the lawsuit under FEHA exclusively.
What Constitutes Harassment under FEHA?
All sexual harassment lawsuits in Orange County and California are based on the provisions of FEHA. In addition to being a state law, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing was created to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and to prosecute those employers who violated the provisions of FEHA.
Because it is a civil matter, if a victim wins a sexual harassment case then they may be financially compensated in the form of damages paid by the aggressor in the case. Furthermore, depending on the specifics of the case, the aggressor may also have to pay the legal fees of the victim of the case.
FEHA specifies that discriminatory actions as part sexually harassing behavior can occur in any of the following forms:
- Refusing to hire someone
- Terminating someone
- Being denied a promotion
- Receiving a reduction in pay or not receiving a raise
- Being assigned to do the worst or least desirable tasks
- Not receiving benefits
- Working in conditions that are unsafe or unsanitary
- A persistent and chronic pattern of verbal abuse
If you have been subjected to any of these behaviors on the basis of any of the protected characteristics, there is a good chance you have a strong harassment lawsuit. It is best to retain an experienced law firm and to quickly go on the offensive. This will create not only a corrective for the employer to never do it again, but will also potentially compensate you for the suffering and anguish you have suffered from due to these illegal behaviors.
How to File a Sexual Harassment Suit
Filing a sexual harassment suit can be intimidating and frightening. It may seem like the laws are too complex for the average layperson to understand and that the legal system is too labyrinthine to easily navigate. This is why it is so crucial to hire an excellent attorney who can advise you and build your case for you.
You also have the option of directly filing a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. This is the civil regulatory body that oversees FEHA. There is a statute of limitations on sexual harassment lawsuits, however: you must file no later than one year after the incident in question. After that, the department has 60 days to determine if they wish to go forward with your complaint. It is advisable to already have a lawyer at this point as they can push the department to go forward with the investigation. If the Department of FEHA does decide to go forward with the complaint, they will initiate a comprehensive investigation and begin contacting all relevant parties, including the aggressor in the case.
If it is determined that sexual harassment laws were in fact violated, then the Department of FEHA will then have a mediatory meeting with all parties present to try and reach an agreement. This is usually to try and determine a financial amount to be settled out of court. Again, it is best to have a lawyer present at this stage as they can effectively argue for greater financial compensation for the victim. If no agreement is reached, then the case will go to trial before a civil judge.
It is important to note that during the entire investigatory and regulatory process, the victim is explicitly protected from any punishing behaviors designed to silence them. Because so many victims are afraid of speaking out, California law affords them certain protections so that they may effectively voice their grievances and seek out compensatory damages for their suffering and anguish.
A term of employment is effectively a contract between the employer and the employee. This means that certain laws apply if it is determined that a breach of contract has applied. This includes instances where the employer terminates the employee in retaliation for claiming or addressing instances of sexual harassment in the workplace. This is explicitly known as retaliation and is illegal under both Title VII and FEHA.
Creating a Hostile Work Environment and Constructive Discharge
Some employers will be unscrupulous and try to avoid the protections against wrongful termination by creating a work environment that is so toxic and so hostile that the employee is forced to resign. This is known as constructive discharge and is itself also illegal. In fact, even if the original sexual harassment lawsuit is dropped by the court, the victim may still be afforded financial damages if they suffered retaliation or constructive discharge at the hands of their employee.
This means that an allegation of retaliation or constructive discharge is considered to be related, but ultimately separate from, any allegations of sexual harassment. In a civil court of law, both scenarios would be argued before the judge and then a ruling would be applied to each separately.
This applies if the employer was given several chances to correct this toxic atmosphere and failed to do so, thereby creating a hostile work environment that was untenable for the employee to continue in. This also applies in cases where an employer may have tried to require an employee in question to perform criminal acts. In these cases, the employer will be held liable for both the constructive discharge as well as the criminal acts in question.
The laws protecting sexual harassment victims have come a long way in the past several decades. However, there are still instances where an employee may feel too frightened or intimidated to continue with their case. If you are in the Orange County area and are suffering from these kinds of behaviors, you do not have to allow it to continue. You can retain the services of Sexual Harassment Attorney and fight back! We have an extensive history of successfully arguing for our clients and getting them the settlements they deserve for their pain and suffering. Call us anytime, day or night, at 800-905-1856 and get your free consultation. Do not let yourself be bullied or intimidated into silence! We are here to help you.