Sexual Harassment in Professional Relationships
California Civil Code 51.9

Under California sexual harassment law, Civil Code 51.9, you have the right to sue if you are the victim of sexual harassment in the context of a business, service or professional relationship, including relationships such as

  • Doctor-patient,
  • Therapist-patient,
  • Lawyer-client,
  • Landlord-tenant, and
  • Teacher-student.1

Most people are more familiar with sexual harassment (and non-sexual harassment, for that matter) in the context of employment relationships. But California Civil Code 51.9 recognizes that sexual harassment can be every bit as traumatic when it takes place in different situations--for example, when someone is harassed by a physician, landlord or teacher.2

In this article, our California labor and employment lawyers answer the following frequently asked questions about professional relationship sexual harassment in California:

If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. Who can commit professional relationship sexual harassment under California Civil Code 51.9?

Civil Code 51.9 gives you the right to file a civil lawsuit in response to sexual harassment by someone with whom you have a business, service or professional relationship.3

Male-doctor-with-female-patient
Doctors are one kind of professional who can commit sexual harassment under Civil Code 51.9

Below, we list several examples of common professional relationships in which professional relationship sexual harassment can take place.

It's important to note that this NOT an exhaustive list. Other sorts of relationships can be covered under California's law against professional-relationship sexual harassment.4

However, Civil Code 51.9 only gives you a right to sue for sexual harassment if the professional relationship involved is one that you cannot terminate easily.5

Example: Karl is Harriet's regular plumber. She calls him whenever something goes wrong with the plumbing at her house. 

On one service visit, Karl tries to kiss Harriet. When she refuses, he gets angry and throws a tool across her living room. It hits and breaks a lamp. Harriet then asks Karl to leave, and he complies.

Even though Karl may have sexually harassed Harriet, she probably does not have a case under Civil Code 51.9, because it will be easy for her to terminate their professional relationship and find a new plumber.

1.1. Doctor or therapist sexual harassment of patients

Sexual harassment by physicians, psychotherapists, dentists, and similar professionals (including nurses and nurse practitioners) is one of the most common types of professional relationship sexual harassment under Civil Code 51.9.6

Example: Marissa has suffered from severe depression for years. Her condition begins to improve after she begins seeing Tom, a psychotherapist who helps her work through several traumatic experiences from her childhood. She depends on her weekly sessions with Tom to help her preserve her mental health.

But one day Tom makes a pass at her. When Marissa resists his sexual advances, he threatens to tell her husband some of the secrets she has told him in therapy.

Marissa's professional relationship with Tom is one that she cannot terminate without consequences for her mental health. So she may be able to sue him for Civil Code 51.9 sexual harassment as a result of this incident.

Male-psychotherapist-taking-notes-on-female-patient
Professional-relationship sexual harassment can only occur in relationships that cannot be terminated easily (like that with a psychotherapist).

1.2. Teacher sexual harassment of students

Because of the power dynamics at play, sexual harassment of students by teachers or professors is all too common in California. 

Teacher-student sexual harassment is also considered a form of professional-relationship sexual harassment under California harassment law.7

1.3. Attorney or financial professional sexual harassment of clients

Attorneys, financial advisers and similar professionals can also commit professional-relationship sexual harassment under California Civil Code 51.9.

Types of professionals who may sexually harass their clients include:

  • Lawyers,
  • Social workers,
  • Real estate agents,
  • Real estate appraisers,
  • Accountants, 
  • Bankers,
  • Trust officers,
  • Financial planners,
  • Loan officers, 
  • Collection service officers,
  • Building contractors, 
  • Escrow loan officers, and
  • Executors, trustees or administrators of estates.8

1.4. Landlord sexual harassment of tenants

Landlord-tenant sexual harassment is another common form of business-relationship sexual harassment.

Harassment of tenants may be committed by landlords personally or by their agents (such as building superintendents or property managers).9

2. What kind of behavior counts as business-relationship sexual harassment under Civil Code 51.9?

The definition of professional-relationship sexual harassment under California Civil Code 51.9 is closely related to the definition of sexual harassment in the workplace under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act.10

Sexual harassment in the context of a business, professional or service relationship is defined as sexual advances, solicitations, sexual requests, demands for sexual compliance, or verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature or of a hostile nature based on gender, where such behavior is both

  • unwelcome, and
  • either pervasive or severe.11
Man-touching-arm-of-woman-holding-binder
Sexual harassment under Civil Code 51.9 must be unwelcome sexual behavior.

The requirement that the unwanted sexual behavior be either severe or pervasive is key to a successful lawsuit for professional-relationship sexual harassment.

"Pervasive" means that the behavior occurs frequently. Therefore, for an isolated incident of unwanted sexual conduct to count as business-relationship sexual harassment, it must be "severe"--which in practice usually means that it has to involve physical assault or a threat of physical assault.12

Example: Lourdes lives in an apartment building. Daniel is the property manager.

One day a security camera in Lourdes' apartment reveals that Daniel let himself in while she was not home, went into her and her daughter's bedrooms, opened their drawers, and sniffed their underwear.

Daniel's behavior does not count as professional-relationship sexual harassment under Civil Code 51.9. It is not pervasive because it is an isolated incident. And disturbing as the incident is, it does not count as "severe" either--because there was no threat of physical assault.13

3. Do I have to suffer damages to sue my harasser for professional-relationship sexual harassment in California?

The short answer is yes. California Civil Code 51.9 requires a plaintiff in a business-relationship sexual harassment lawsuit to show that s/he has suffered or will suffer economic loss or disadvantage, or personal injury, as a result of the harassment.14

But it is important to note that "personal injury" for purposes of a professional-relationship sexual harassment lawsuit can include emotional distress. it can also include the violation of a statutory or constitutional right (such as the right to be free from gender-based discrimination in housing or employment).15

Also, the process for suing someone for sexual harassment in the context of a business, professional or service relationship is different from the steps that an employee must take if s/he suffers harassment in the workplace. While a victim of workplace harassment needs to start by filing a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a victim of professional-relationship harassment can proceed directly to a lawsuit in the Superior Court of California.

Call us for help....

Labor-employment-law-firm-call-center

For questions about professional-relationship sexual harassment under California Civil Code 51.9, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled California labor and employment attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local employment law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.


Legal References:

  1. Civil Code 51.9 CC - Sexual harassment; business, service and professional relationships. ("(a) A person is liable in a cause of action for sexual harassment under this section when the plaintiff proves all of the following elements: (1) There is a business, service, or professional relationship between the plaintiff and defendant. Such a relationship may exist between a plaintiff and a person, including, but not limited to, any of the following persons: (A) Physician, psychotherapist, or dentist. For purposes of this section, “psychotherapist” has the same meaning as set forth in paragraph (1) of subdivision (c) of Section 728 of the Business and Professions Code. (B) Attorney, holder of a master's degree in social work, real estate agent, real estate appraiser, accountant, banker, trust officer, financial planner loan officer, collection service, building contractor, or escrow loan officer. (C) Executor, trustee, or administrator. (D) Landlord or property manager. (E) Teacher. (F) A relationship that is substantially similar to any of the above. (2) The defendant has made sexual advances, solicitations, sexual requests, demands for sexual compliance by the plaintiff, or engaged in other verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature or of a hostile nature based on gender, that were unwelcome and pervasive or severe. (3) There is an inability by the plaintiff to easily terminate the relationship. (4) The plaintiff has suffered or will suffer economic loss or disadvantage or personal injury, including, but not limited to, emotional distress or the violation of a statutory or constitutional right, as a result of the conduct described in paragraph (2). (b) In an action pursuant to this section, damages shall be awarded as provided by subdivision (b) of Section 52.")
  2. Same. 
  3. Same. 
  4. Civil Code 51.9 CC - Sexual harassment; business, service and professional relationships, endnote 1 above.
  5. Same.
  6. Same. See also C.R. v. Tenet Healthcare Corp. (2009) 169 Cal.App.4th 1094, 1106. ("As can be noted, section 51.9 applies when a service or professional relationship exists. Depending on the facts, a certified nurse assistant can have a service or professional relationship with a patient, as can other hospital staff. It depends on the facts.")
  7. Civil Code 51.9 CC - Sexual harassment; business, service and professional relationships, endnote 1 above.
  8. Same.
  9. Same.
  10. Compare Civil Code 51.9 CC - Sexual harassment; business, service and professional relationships, endnote 1 above, with Government Code 12940 GC -- Employers, labor organizations, employment agencies and other persons; unlawful employment practice; exceptions [California sexual harassment law].
  11. Civil Code 51.9 CC - Sexual harassment; business, service and professional relationships, endnote 1 above.
  12. Hughes v. Pair (2009) 46 Cal.4th 1035, 1049. ("As noted earlier (95 Cal.Rptr.3d p. 645, 209 P.3d p. 971, ante ), employment law acknowledges that an isolated incident of harassing conduct may qualify as “severe” when it consists of “a physical assault or the threat thereof.”")
  13. Based on the facts of Ramirez v. Wong (2010) 188 Cal.App.4th 1480.
  14. Civil Code 51.9 CC - Sexual harassment; business, service and professional relationships, endnote 1 above.
  15. Same.

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