Protecting the Rights of People Who Have Experienced Sexual Harassment in the Palo Alto California Area
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California law both give you the right to work free from discrimination based on your sex. Prospective employers cannot deny you a job based on your sex. Current employers cannot deny you a raise or promotion, or demote or terminate you, based on your sex. Your company also cannot have policies in place that favor one sex over the other. Finally, these laws prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace.
Workplaces can turn into interesting environments with many adults working together for large parts of their weeks. People can get comfortable with one another—and some can overstep boundaries and make other co-workers feel uncomfortable. While such encounters are inevitable in most workplaces, when they are sexually related, they may rise to the level of unlawful sexual harassment, which can prove distressing. In severe situations, some people may even leave their jobs—or their professions.
Workplace sexual harassment can strike anyone, man or woman. The laws protect all employees from such harassment regardless of their sex or sexual orientation. You may not know, however, whether your experience rose to the level of sexual harassment, and you may not fully understand your legal rights.
You should never hesitate to discuss what happened with an experienced sexual harassment attorney. The law firm of Winer, Burritt & Tillis is dedicated to standing up for the rights of employees in these harmful work environments, so please call today for more information.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is notoriously difficult to define. Individual instances of sexually offensive conduct at work do not necessarily rise to the level of actionable harassment—but they certainly can, in serious cases. In addition, the law takes into account the relationship between the alleged harasser and victim—people who are in an active romantic or sexual relationship will communicate much differently than mere coworkers.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (CDFEH) provides the following partial list of conduct that would in all likelihood constitute sexual harassment:
- Visual conduct, including staring or leering, sexual gestures, or displaying sexually suggestive objects, such as pictures, cartoons or posters
- Verbal conduct, such as derogatory or insulting remarks of a sexual nature; swearing, sexual slurs, and sexually suggestive innuendoes or double-entendres; sexually oriented jokes; or any other verbal abuse of a sexual nature
- Physical conduct, such as any unwanted or uninvited touching, assault, or seeking to impede or block movements, such as trying to keep a person in a place they wish to leave
- Offering employment benefits—or even just continued employment—in exchange for sexual favors
- Threatening or actually taking retaliatory action if the victim rejects sexual advances
Unlawful sexual harassment can fall into two broad categories: That in which enduring harassment becomes a condition of continued employment, and harassment that creates a hostile work environment.
Quid Pro Quo Harassment
The first type of often referred to as “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase meaning “this for that.” It describes a situation where you trade one thing for another. In the case of sexual harassment, your supervisor actually requires you to trade sex to keep your job, or perhaps to obtain a promotion or other advancement. The supervisor does not need to explicitly propose the exchange, as suggestions from people in positions of authority often constitute veiled threats.
In California, you can hold an employer strictly liable when a superior or supervisor uses a position of authority in the workplace to harass or intimidate you into having sex.
In this context, strict liability means that, if the harassed employee shows that the harassment took place and came from a supervisor, then the employer is liable for any damages suffered by the harassed employee. Typically, victims of this type of harassment may recover compensation for lost wages and any other economic losses, as well as for emotional distress, attorney fees, interest on any damages awarded, and potentially for punitive damages. A court might award punitive damages if the company’s officers, directors, or other managing agents knew about the harassment and but nothing to halt it or punish the harasser.
Hostile Work Environment
The second category of harassment involves conduct that creates a hostile work environment. This requires severe or pervasive conduct that creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Examples of conduct that could create a hostile work environment include:
- Inappropriate jokes
- Suggestive remarks
- Displaying sexually suggestive or explicit images
- Discussing one’s sexual activities
- Unwanted touching
- Asking questions about a person’s sexual history
- Sending links to sexually suggestive or explicit websites
Isolated instances of “minor” harassment probably do not violate the law. Perpetrators must commit either pervasive or severe acts before unlawful sexual harassment takes place. For example, one sexually offensive comment or joke will likely not constitute a hostile work environment. Instead, the harasser must repeatedly make these comments or jokes to the point where the situation becomes hostile.
On the other hand, some acts of harassment are so serious that only one incident will create a hostile work environment. This can include unwanted sexual touching, sexually related threats, or severely harmful and even dangerous acts like assault. In these situations, a harassment victim can likely take legal action after only a single instance.
In addition, supervisors and coworkers can create a hostile work environment by making openly lewd comments, off-color jokes, and inappropriate remarks, or by displaying sexually suggestive pictures or posters. They need not direct such harassment at the complaining employee to result in a valid hostile work environment complaint.
Strict liability can apply for employers in hostile work environment cases as well, but with certain restrictions. Under California law, if a supervisor commits the harassment, the employer may face strict liability for damages. In cases where the hostile work environment stems from non-supervisory coworkers of the harassed person, the employer is liable for damages only if a supervisor knew or should have known about the harassment and did not take prompt, appropriate steps to stop the harassment.
Strict liability for employers differs under federal law. Under federal law, even if a supervisor is the harasser, the employer is not liable so long as the employer does not take “employer actions”—including termination or demotion—against the person reporting harassment. Furthermore, if the employer can prove that it exercised reasonable care to prevent harassment and took prompt action to halt the harassment when the employer learned about it, and that the harassed employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective measures available from the employer, then strict liability does not apply. Critics argue that this punishes employees who do not report sexual harassment for fear of retaliation.
Because California law doesn’t limit employer liability for harassment by a supervisor, plaintiffs generally view California state courts as a more hospitable venue than federal courts for harassment claims.
What to Do After You Suffer Sexual Harassment
Unsurprisingly, due to the complicated and confusing workplace laws regarding sexual harassment, many employees do not know what to do after an incident—or repeated incidents—of harassment.
The best way to know your most beneficial course of action is to discuss your situation with an attorney who has extensive experience handling workplace sexual harassment claims.
To exercise your rights under federal law, you or your attorney generally must first file a complaint with the EEOC, and under California law, with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. To increase your chances of a positive result, you want to present complete, clear, concise, and accurate information in your complaint.
After you successfully complete the process with the EEOC or CDFEH, you may file a claim in civil court to seek damages for your losses stemming from the harassment. This can include lost income if you needed to miss work or if the harassment caused you to leave your job. You may also recover damages for emotional and mental distress caused by the harassment or its aftermath. If you were the victim of sexual assault, you can seek financial recovery for that as well.
An experienced workplace harassment lawyer will assess your case, evaluate your claim, and help you through this difficult process.
No matter where you decide to file your complaint, seek an attorney quickly because the filing deadlines are fairly tight. You have 180 days from the date of the harassment to file a complaint with the federal EEOC, and one year to file with the state CDFEH. Failing to file regulatory complaints in those time frames will prevent you from filing a lawsuit for damages.
Preparing these complicated complaints and claims requires extensive preparation and experience to ensure the most positive outcome. You should never wait until the last minute to consult an attorney. The sooner we learn about what happened to you, the sooner we can determine your legal rights and begin working to protect them.
Palo Alto Employers Have Legal Obligations to Prevent Sexual Harassment
It makes sense for any employer to establish procedures to prevent and end sexual harassment. It’s just good business. Such disruptive activity in the workplace can’t help any company.
In California, it also is the law. Businesses with 50 or more employees, including independent contractors, must give sexual harassment prevention training to all supervisors every two years, and to anyone hired or promoted to a position as a supervisor within six months of taking the position. Any training must include:
- The definition of sexual harassment under the applicable state and federal statutes
- Any conduct that can constitute sexual harassment
- Company and government policies designed to help victims of sexual harassment, including complaint avenues and other remedies, as well as any other resources for victims of sexual harassment
- Ways to prevent sexual harassment
- The obligations that supervisors have to report sexual harassment
- Methods by which employers must correct harassing behavior
- What to do if the supervisor is personally accused of harassment
If you have experienced sexual harassment at the workplace and your employer has not adequately addressed the situation, talk to an attorney immediately. In many cases, victims are entitled to significant compensation for their economic and non-economic losses. At the very least, maybe you can put a stop to the behavior and ensure that other people don’t have to endure it.
If You Were Sexually Harassed in the Palo Alto area, Contact the Attorneys of Winer, Burritt and Scott, LLP
If you suffered sexual harassment in the Palo Alto area, consult a lawyer to determine your rights. Act quickly, however, because filing deadlines are tight in these complicated harassment cases.
Sexual harassment can cause distress, and you may not want to rehash these harmful and offensive events. However, doing so is necessary to hold the perpetrator and your employer responsible for your suffering and all of your losses.
Our legal team understands that this is a sensitive and personal situation for you. We are compassionate and dedicated to helping you through every step of the process. All information you provide to us is confidential and we will treat it with care. With more than 60 years of combined partner experience, we have the experience required to resolve your case as favorably as possible.
The lawyers of Winer, Burritt and Scott, LLP, can assist you in protecting your rights if you have suffered sexual harassment at work. Reach us at (510) 433-1000 or through our website.
**We do not represent perpetrators of sexual harassment or those who are accused of sexually harassing behavior.