In order to file a lawsuit for workplace harassment in California, you have to do 3 things:
- inform your employer of the harassment,
- file a harassment complaint with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD), and
- obtain a “right to sue” letter from the CRD.
Only after receiving this “right to sue” letter can you bring a lawsuit against your employer for workplace harassment.
Here at Shouse Law Group, I represent countless loyal, hard-working employees who are victims of workplace harassment. In my experience, I can usually get employers to stop the harassment while handing over a favorable financial settlement without having to go to court at all. In many cases, a strongly-worded demand letter is sufficient to get the business owner’s notice.
1. Inform the employer
If you feel that you are being harassed in the workplace, start by informing your employer. In many cases, the employer will take action to end the harassment and resolve the issue. If the employer takes no action, it will strengthen your case if you need to file a lawsuit.
I have found that lots of employers take their legal duty to stop workplace harassment very seriously. Notifying them of the situation can be all that it takes for the employer to take corrective action to get the harassment to stop.
Additionally, California law forbids employers from retaliating against you for complaining of workplace harassment. Fear of retaliation should never stop you from complaining of harassment.
California law requires employers to have and to disseminate a written anti-harassment policy. This policy should specify who will field complaints of harassment in the workplace.1
When the harassment is done by a non-supervisor, like a coworker or even a client or customer, most policies will guide you to your supervisor. However, policies must also provide an alternative reporting system for when the harasser is a supervisory employee. These often direct you to report the harassment to a:
- human resources (HR) officer,
- complaint hotline,
- diversity coordinator,
- designated officer for discrimination and harassment complaints, or
- coordinator for equal employment opportunity, or an EEO coordinator.
In California, a “supervisor” is anyone who, using their independent judgment:
- can hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees,
- has the responsibility to direct other employees,
- has the responsibility to adjust employee grievances, or
- can effectively recommend any of these actions.2
If I file a lawsuit in your case, I would sue not only your employer as a business but also your individual harassers.
2. File a complaint with the CRD
If the harassment persists, the next step is to file a harassment complaint with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD). This step is required before you can file a harassment lawsuit against your employer. However, you can request a “right to sue” letter from the CRD, immediately, rather than wait for the agency to conduct an investigation.
The CRD has an online intake form to initiate the complaint process. This form is for reporting any type of workplace discrimination, including harassment. The information on the form can be submitted in several ways:
- online, by creating an account with the Cal Civil Rights System (CCRS),
- by mail, using a printable intake form, or
- by calling the CRD at 800-884-1684.
On this form, you can detail the harassment that you have been subjected to in the workplace. You can include facts about:
- racial epithets or ethnic slurs used by coworkers,
- female employees or interns being subjected to quid pro quo sexual harassment,
- supervisors giving bad work performance reviews after their sexual advances were turned down, or
- any other unwelcome and inappropriate workplace conduct.
In my experience, the more detail you put in the complaint, the more likely that the CRD will take it seriously and put time and resources towards remedying the harassment.
Statute of limitations
You have 3 years from the date of the harassment to file this intake form.3 While this seems like a long statute of limitations, the time limits can sneak up on you. This is especially common if:
- you are waiting for your employer to resolve the situation,
- the harassment has come and gone over time, or
- it is unclear when the unwelcome workplace conduct rose to the level of harassment.
Based on the information provided on the intake form, the CRD will decide whether to investigate further. It will only investigate discrimination and harassment claims if they would fall under one of the California civil rights laws that the agency enforces. These are the:
- Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA),
- Unruh Civil Rights Act,
- Disabled Persons Act, and
- Ralph Civil Rights Act.
Note that the CRD does not enforce federal law. Federal employment laws, like Title VII, are generally enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
If the situation would not be enforced a California anti-harassment law, the CRD will not accept the case. It may issue a “right to sue” letter so you can proceed on your own.
If the harassment would be enforced by one of these laws, the CRD may take the case. If they do, the CRD will send you a complaint. When you sign the complaint and return it to the CRD, it will be delivered to the harasser or employer, who becomes the respondent.
The CRD investigation
When the respondent answers the complaint, the CRD will initiate its investigation. If the CRD finds no reasonable cause to believe that unlawful harassment occurred, the CRD can issue a “right to sue” letter and let you proceed on your own.
If the CRD investigation finds that there is reasonable cause to believe that there was harassment, it may require you to go through mediation to resolve the issue. If the case is not settled through mediation, the CRD may file a lawsuit in court against the employer on your behalf.
You can forgo the CRD investigation by filing the intake form and then immediately requesting a “right to sue” letter. In my experience, it is usually worth requesting the “right to sue” letter right away so we can commence litigation without delay; employers are more scared of lawsuits than agency investigations, and we may be able to win you a large financial settlement while stopping the harassment merely by threatening to sue your boss.
3. Obtain a “right to sue” letter from the CRD
Finally, you have to obtain a “right to sue” letter from the CRD before you can file a lawsuit against your employer or harasser. The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) requires a “right to sue” letter from the CRD before you can bring your employer to court.4
Once the letter is received, you have 1 year to file a lawsuit.5 This deadline may be extended if harassment charges were also filed with the federal EEOC.6
Do not wait to contact me once you receive the “right to sue” letter. Depending on your case, it may take time to compile the relevant evidence necessary before I can send out a convincing demand letter or file a strong complaint in court.
What about claims for sexual harassment or a hostile work environment?
Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct that targets you based on your sex. It may be the most common type of harassment in the workplace. However, it is not the only type. Others include harassment that targets you based on a protected class, like your:
- gender or gender identity,
- physical or mental disability,
- sexual orientation,
- national origin, or
- any other protected trait.
Hostile work environment
A hostile working environment is how you experienced the harassment. Under California state law, workplace harassment can come in 2 shapes:
- quid pro quo harassment, where a supervisor conditions a workplace benefit on harassing conduct, like sexual favors, and
- hostile working environment harassment, where inappropriate workplace conduct that targets a protected trait is so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would find that it creates an abusive working environment for the target of the harassing behavior.7
Can my employer retaliate against me for complaining about harassment?
No, employers are forbidden from retaliating against you for complaining about workplace harassment. If they do retaliate, I can bring an additional cause of action for you to file in your lawsuit. This, in turn, can lead to larger financial rewards for you.
What damages are available in California?
In my experience with harassment lawsuits, I have recovered substantial compensation for my clients’:
- medical expenses, if the stress of the harassment led to a diagnosable medical condition,
- lost wages, including future wages, and
- emotional distress.
In certain severe cases, I can ask the court to award punitive damages – which can be much higher than regulation compensatory damages.
- 2 California Code of Regulations 11023 CCR.
- California Government Code 12926(t) GC.
- California Government Code 12960 GC.
- California Government Code 12965 GC.
- California Government Code 12965 GC.
- California Government Code 12965 GC. See also Ali Zaslav and Jessica Dean, Senate passes sweeping overhaul of workplace sexual misconduct law CNN (February 10, 2022)(“The bill, called Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act, bans forced arbitration in cases involving sexual misconduct and allows victims the option of bringing up the dispute in federal, tribal or state court.”).
- See, for example, Mogilefsky v. Superior Court (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1409 and Hughes v. Pair (2009) 46 Cal.4th 1035.