Protecting Sacramento Workers From Workplace Harassment
Sacramento is the center of California government. The State Legislature, government agencies, prisons, universities, and many other public employers are centered in the political life of Sacramento. This makes it an exciting place for politically minded people, and a gathering point for state government employees. This also means that Sacramento government employers often become bogged down in the bureaucracy, which is all too common.
In the case of sexual harassment, this means that many victims leave with inadequate responses from their government employers. The advice of an experienced sexual harassment attorney, however, can help victims cut through levels of bureaucracy to access the legal redress to which they are entitled. At Winer, Burritt & Scott, our highly skilled attorneys have spent decades holding Sacramento employers liable for illegal conduct in the workplace.
The Scope of the Sexual Harassment Problem Here in Sacramento
Recently, California state government agencies have paid large sums of taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment claims against them. The Sacramento Bee reports on some of the largest settlements in the more egregious cases.
In one example, in a case brought by WMB that received coverage throughout the world, an executive assistant at the UC Berkeley School of Law received a $1.7 million settlement for harassment perpetrated by the new dean. One would hope that a lawyer—and the dean of a school tasked with training new lawyers—would know better than to engage in conduct that could submit the school to nearly $2 million in undisputed liability. Nonetheless, the dean reportedly engaged in bear hugs, kissing on the cheek, and other public displays of inappropriate affection. The conduct even escalated after the assistant reported it to personnel in the school’s human resources department.
After several more ineffectual attempts to report the conduct, the school found that the dean had violated its policies prohibiting sexual harassment and violence, but failed to protect women from his conduct. Rather, school reduced the dean’s pay by 10 percent and forced him to apologize to the victim. Backlash on campus caused the dean to step down, but he remained a tenured faculty member during the one year “unpaid sabbatical” that followed. Eventually, the School of Law allowed him to resign in good standing. This did little to deter his conduct or protect other women from the man’s illegal workplace behavior.
The Department of Corrections was also identified as a defendant in several different lawsuits alleging a wide variety of disturbing behaviors. In one, a female correctional officer attempted to report a male inmate for becoming naked and masturbating in front of her. Her complaints were ignored, and, in fact, two more “exhibitionist masturbators” were placed in her unit. Her requests for a psychological exam were ignored, as were her contentions that the inmate posed a threat to all female staff members (which would have required his placement in administrative segregation per DOC policy).
These contentions proved prescient when the inmate later attacked the same officer. He caught her from behind, held her in a headlock, and cut her with a metal can lid that he had covered in feces. The inmate then threw her down a flight of stairs. Only the intervention of another officer, who shot the inmate with a rubber bullet, stopped the attack. The investigation following this attack revealed a shocking lack of intervention by the Department. Any of the officer’s requested actions could have prevented the clearly foreseeable attack.
The Department of Corrections also became embroiled in another ghastly case involving the sexual assault of young men in a youth correctional facility. A lawsuit alleged that a staff counselor engaged in grooming and other classic behavior to prey on wards in his care. He coerced juvenile inmates into sex acts with the promise of goods and privileges, or with threats of punishment. In some cases, the counselor actually directed other wards to commit physical violence to the young men who rebuffed his sexual advances. The counselor denied the allegations and suggested that they were retaliatory in nature. Notwithstanding this defense, the case settled for $10 million (again, of taxpayer funds) and the youth facility in Chino has since closed.
In another case, a unit supervisor admitted to planting a camera in an all-gender bathroom in a Department of State Hospitals facility. It was aimed at the toilet and set to a record mode. He resigned and was prosecuted criminally, and victims settled their cases for $784,500. The Department of State Hospitals allegedly failed to investigate the supervisor’s work history or criminal records. The lawsuit alleges that this placed employees in unnecessary danger of the very type they ultimately suffered.
And in the Department of Developmental Services, a female officer at a state-run developmental center was subjected to lewd comments, leering, gestures, and sexual touching on a “virtual daily basis” for several years. Ultimately, her locker was vandalized with sexually explicit pictures. The acting sergeant who investigated the incident also joined the lawsuit, contending that his official investigation resulted in retaliation. Investigation of the claims revealed that a commanding officer had actually intervened in the victim’s complaint process to ensure that her complaint was found without merit. The same commander was also involved in the retaliatory acts against the investigator.
This startling amount of cover-up is all the more disturbing when one considers the facility at which it occurred. Facilities run by the Department of Developmental Services house adults with severe mental disabilities that prevent them from living independently. The safety of these residents depends almost entirely on the integrity of the staff members who watch over them 24 hours per day. That these same staff members engaged in sexual harassment and a massive cover-up raises serious questions about the safety of the adults in their care.
How Can We Change the Culture of Sexual Harassment in California Government?
With so many horrible stories of egregious sexual misconduct in state government, we can easily grow discouraged and assume that safe workplaces are a lost cause. This is not the case. Brave victims across California are telling their stories and demanding change. The threats of their accusers or backlash from certain segments of society (particularly on the internet) have not silenced them. Here are just a few of their inspiring stories.
State Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles has introduced legislation that would expand sexual harassment training to virtually all California workers. According to the Sacramento Bee, sexual harassment training is currently required once every two years, but only for supervisory workers in companies with 50 or more employees. Mitchell’s legislation would expand this requirement to all employees of any business that employs five or more people. “In order for this culture shift around sexual harassment prevention to be successful, workers need to feel confident in their workplace policies and procedures,” Mitchell said of her law. Indeed, this law would expand training and help spread the message that no employer is exempt from state and federal sexual harassment laws.
The California Senate also took the unusual step of directing one state senator to stop hugging staff members. The Sacramento Bee reports that Sen. Bob Hertzberg has a trademark “bear hug” given to many coworkers, constituents, and others. A Senate investigation concluded that the hugs made two female legislators and a male sergeant-at-arms feel uncomfortable. Therefore, the senate reprimanded him and directed him to stop initiating these hugs. This unusual case illustrates just how seriously even relatively minor conduct is taken in the current climate of sexual harassment culture change. It also demonstrates how public reprimands can send important messages about sexual harassment—even to people in powerful positions.
The California legislature is taking other important steps to weed out sexual harassment within its ranks. The Sacramento Bee reports on a bill that would require the legislature to release the results of harassment and discrimination investigations into lawmakers or high-level employees when they are well-founded or when discipline is imposed.
This would constitute the first expansion of open records laws governing the legislature in more than 40 years. It also demonstrates a real, tangible response to the growing awareness of sexual harassment at the State Capitol. The Assemblyman who introduced the bill intends it “to serve as a measure of accountability for conduct in the Legislature, while also pushing the boundaries of transparency in the body.” These goals speak to a larger culture shift in which sexual harassment is not tolerated in the highest levels of state government.
And in Los Angeles, civil rights lawyer Valerie McGinty founded a political action committee (called Fund Her) designed to boost the low numbers of women running for public office. While women candidates have boosted their numbers since President Trump’s election in November 2016, they still suffer from a lack of funding and other necessary support. “These aren’t just seat gains,” McGinty told the Los Angeles Times of her organization’s endorsements. “This is an opportunity to come out of the gate with a strong statement.”
Fund Her is partnering with Emerge California and Close the Gap California—two other organizations that train and recruit women to run for public office. Together, they are a powerful force with the potential to balance the number of men and women in public office. This important step could redesign the culture of state government. A more even balance of representatives may transform government culture and make it more inviting to employees of all genders.
The Ineffectiveness of a Bureaucratic Response, and How an Attorney Can Help Cut Through the Red Tape of State Government
Any state government agency will inevitably involve many layers of supervisors, paperwork, and other bureaucracy. In many cases, this delays, impedes, or stops a sexual harassment claim altogether. That need not happen. With an aggressive attorney who knows how to pursue a sexual harassment claim, victims can cut through the layers of red tape and stop sexual harassers, prevent harassers from harming others, and hold government employers responsible for providing a safe working environment for all employees.
There are many ways in which an attorney can accomplish this goal. Sometimes it is simply a matter of finding the right legal representative of the organization. While line-level supervisors and even upper-level managers may not fully understand the legal ramifications of a report of sexual harassment, an attorney will. That person may take reports seriously and facilitate a real response—particularly when the report comes from an attorney who can effectively present the case for the employer’s liability.
In other cases, employers will not provide acceptable responses, and victims must file lawsuits to resolve their claims. An attorney can help a victim determine whether litigation is necessary. An attorney can also help prepare the victim for the grueling tasks of repeating a painful story many times over, both in depositions and at trial. The litigation process can prove extremely painful for victims. Effective preparation by an experienced attorney can make the process far less overwhelming.
Finally, an attorney can help victims determine what other steps are necessary to truly change the culture in which the sexual harassment occurred. Sometimes this involves reporting the story to the media, so that the public can learn about egregious conduct by powerful men and women in influential organizations. It may involve finding the right advocacy group to support a victim who comes forward. Sexual harassment victims have many different ways to seek justice and work for change—and an experienced attorney can help.
Call Us Today to Speak With a Sexual Harassment Attorney in Sacramento
California employers have a legal responsibility to address sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers who violate this duty can face liability for workplace sexual harassment and are often legally obligated to compensate victims for the sexual harassment they have suffered. The experienced personal injury attorneys at Winer, Burritt & Scott can help sexual harassment victims hold their employers accountable for inappropriate conduct in the workplace. Call (800) 652-6137 today to schedule your free consultation.
**We do not represent perpetrators of sexual harassment or those who are accused of sexually harassing behavior.