Workplace Harassment Claims & Lawsuits in California


Harassment in the workplace (either sexual harassment or non-sexual harassment) is not permitted in California. Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, Government Code 12940 GC, an employee who experiences harassment may have the right to sue their employer for damages.1

In 2015, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing--the government agency responsible for enforcing California sexual harassment laws--received almost 5,000 complaints of sexual harassment alone. (This figure doesn't even include other forms of prohibited harassment.)2

Complaints and lawsuits alleging sexual and other forms of workplace harassment are common enough in California that every employer needs to be aware of the basics of harassment law. By the same token, California employees should be aware of their rights when they are confronted with a potential harassment case. 

Our California labor and employment lawyers understand that the stakes of a workplace harassment claim are high--regardless of whether you are a small-business employer potentially facing devastating financial damages, or a harassed employee seeking justice for an experience that may have severely harmed your career prospects and personal dignity.

Below, our California labor and employment attorneys discuss some of the most frequently asked questions we encounter about California harassment law:

If, after reading this article, you have further questions, please don't hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. How does California law define workplace harassment?

The legal definition of harassment under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA") encompasses two distinct forms of harassment. These are:

  1. "Quid pro quo" harassment, in which a supervisor asks an employee to engage in sexual activity as a condition of receiving some form of benefit at work (a promotion, a raise, retention in his/her job, etc.); and
  2. "Hostile work environment" harassment, in which harassing conduct and workplace bullying create an abusive work environment for an employee.3

Quid pro quo harassment is a form of sexual harassment only. 

By contrast, a hostile work environment does not need to involve sexual harassment--or have anything to do with sex or gender. Hostile work environment harassment can be based on race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation, to name just a few examples.4

Book defining sexual harassment
Harassment under California employment law includes both quid pro quo sexual harassment and "hostile work environment" harassment on any basis.

But in order for someone to have a valid claim of California harassment under the "hostile work environment" theory, they need to be able to show that the harassment was either

  •  severe, or
  • pervasive.

This means that isolated, minor incidents of insensitive behavior don't constitute harassment under Government Code 12940 GC.5

Below are several examples that illustrate the legal definition of harassment in California labor law:

Example: Ana's boss has been making it clear for some time that he finds her attractive. One day she asks him for help in dealing with a difficult coworker. He tells her he will help--but only if she will have a drink with him after work. He then proceeds to grope her without her consent. 

Ana's experience probably meets the legal definition of quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Example: Tim is a gay man working at a construction company. His coworkers are all straight men. They frequently use homophobic language and slurs around him and make jokes about him wanting to sleep with other men at their work. Several times Tim has found sexually crude drawings left at his desk.

Tim may have a claim for hostile work environment sexual and sexual orientation harassment.

It is also important to note that employees are not the only people in California with a right to file harassment claims. California workplace harassment law also extends to:

  • Job applicants;
  • Unpaid interns;
  • Volunteers; and
  • People providing services pursuant to a contract (including independent contractors doing work for an employer).6

2. What about harassment other than sexual harassment?

 As we discussed above, sexual harassment is not the only form of harassment recognized in California's Fair Employment and Housing Act. Government Code 12940 GC prohibits non-sexual workplace harassment on any of the following bases:

  • Race,
  • Religion,
  • Color,
  • National origin,
  • Immigration retaliation,
  • Ancestry,
  • Physical or mental disability,
  • Medical condition or genetic information,
  • Marital status,
  • Sex,
  • Gender,
  • Gender identity or gender expression,
  • Age,
  • Sexual orientation, or
  • Military/veteran status.7
Two white employees laughing-behind back of minority employee representing racial-harassment
California employment law prohibits harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, and numerous other categories.

Example: Rashid is a Muslim high school teacher. The principal at his school makes frequent derogatory comments about Muslims, saying things along the lines of "they are all terrorists" and "they should be rounded up and sent back to where they came from."

Rashid may have a claim against his employer for hostile work environment harassment on the basis of religion.

3. What if the harassment is not by a supervisor or boss?

An employee can have a viable harassment claim under California labor and employment law even if the offensive behavior was NOT committed by a supervisor.8

"Quid pro quo" sexual harassment--conditioning an employment benefit on sexual favors or activity--usually involves a supervisor or boss who is in a position to arrange employment benefits. But hostile work environment harassment--sexual or otherwise--can be committed by coworkers as well as by bosses.

In fact, hostile work environment harassment at a workplace can be perpetrated by people who don't even work there--such as clients or visiting contractors. This is often referred to as "third-party sexual harassment." 

But the law regarding the responsibility of employers for harassment is different for alleged harassment by supervisors and alleged harassment by co-workers or other parties.

Man with hand on woman's shoulder representing workplace harassment
Sexual and other forms of harassment can be perpetrated by people other than supervisors.

If harassment is alleged to have been committed by a supervisor, then the employer is strictly liable for the harassment--even if the employer's behavior was not negligent in any way.10

But if the harassment was committed by someone other than a supervisor, then the employer is only liable if it behaved negligently with respect to the harassment.11 A negligent employer is one that knew or should have known about the harassment, but failed to take appropriate corrective action.

We should also mention that California law, Civil Code 51.9, provides a right to sue to people who are the victim of sexual harassment in professional relationships--that is, people who are harassed by someone like a doctor, attorney, teacher, therapist, etc. This law applies only to professional relationships that are not easy to terminate and uses the same definition of sexual harassment as the FEHA.

4. What should the victim of harassment do?

Experiencing sexual or other forms of harassment in the workplace can be a profoundly unsettling experience. But California employment law, including the FEHA, means that employees in this position do not need to suffer in silence.

Our California labor and employment lawyers recommend that employees facing harassment take the following steps:

  1. Tell someone in the organization about the harassment--either a supervisor or a member of the Human Resources Department. This person may be able to put a stop to the harassment. And even if that does not happen, this step will help the employee make his/her case if s/he eventually needs to file a complaint or lawsuit about the harassment.
  2. File a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing ("DFEH"). This step is required before one can file a workplace harassment lawsuit in California. 
  3. Wait for the DFEH to issue a "right to sue" notice (this may be done right away, or following an investigation of the complaint by DFEH). Once the notice is issued, the employee and his/her employment attorney may file a civil lawsuit against the harasser and/or the employer seeking monetary damages.12

Employees who are the victims of workplace harassment typically want to know if there are time limits for bringing harassment complaints or lawsuits--and there are. 

Harassment victims in California may sue their employees after receiving a "right to sue" notice from DFEH.

DFEH complaints generally must be filed within three (3) years after harassment occurs.13

Similarly, a civil lawsuit must be filed within one (1) year of receipt of a "right to sue" notice from DFEH.14

It is important to note that California harassment law also prohibits workplace retaliation (so-called "FEHA retaliation," which could include wrongful termination or wrongful constructive termination) against employees who complain about harassment or participate in harassment investigations.15

 5. What can employers do to prevent workplace harassment?

No California employer wants to have a workplace tainted by ongoing harassment. And it is certainly the case that no California employer wants the financial burden, bad publicity or impact on employee morale of a harassment lawsuit.

Our California labor and employment attorneys advise our employer clients to take the following five steps to prevent sexual harassment and other forms of harassment in the workplace:

  1. Create a written policy against harassment;
  2. Communicate the anti-harassment policy to all employees;
  3. Train supervisors on the anti-harassment policy;
  4. Post the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing's (DFEH's) poster on harassment in a prominent place; and
  5. Distribute the DFEH brochure on harassment to all employees and supervisors.

Not even the most diligent efforts by employers are a guarantee against harassment occurring. But measures like the ones listed above are helpful even in the worst case scenario where harassment does occur--since they can help the employer defend itself against charges of negligence in a potential workplace harassment lawsuit.

Anti harassment training
Training supervisors on an anti-harassment policy is an important step for employers seeking to avoid harassment charges.

6. How should an employer respond to a complaint?

 If an employee alleges that workplace harassment has occurred, our California workplace harassment attorneys recommend that the employer respond with the following seven measures:

  1. Listen attentively to the employee's allegations;
  2. Take immediate action pending an investigation (for example, by altering work assignments or schedules so that the complaining employee no longer needs to work with the alleged harasser(s));
  3. Investigate the complaint thoroughly--preferably with the help of a neutral, knowledgeable third party;
  4. Draw reasonable, good-faith conclusions based on the results of the investigation;
  5. Inform both parties of the investigation results, preferably in writing;
  6. Take appropriate measures to protect the harassed employee and enforce the anti-harassment policy (for example, terminating or disciplining the harasser, and/or changing work schedules or responsibilities so that the harasser no longer supervises or works with the victim); and
  7. Reevaluate the company's anti-harassment policy or implementation to see if more could be done to prevent future incidents of workplace harassment.

These steps for responding to a workplace harassment complaint sound simple--but they can be incredibly complicated to implement.

In many situations, it makes sense for employers confronting allegations of harassment to consult with an experienced labor and employment lawyer immediately for help with responding to the allegations. Waiting to seek legal advice until the incident turns into a DFEH complaint or even a harassment lawsuit may mean that the employer misses valuable opportunities to diffuse the situation.

7. What is the difference between discrimination and harassment?

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act also prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of the same categories on which harassment is prohibited (race, sex, religion, national origin, etc.).16

Many California employers and employees are confused about the difference between a claim for workplace discrimination and a claim for workplace harassment.

To put it simply, the difference is this: Harassment occurs when the harassing party engages in behavior that is outside his/her job description and official duties. Discrimination, on the other hand, occurs when the responsible party is engaged in activities that are part of his/her official duties.17

For example, it is harassment when a supervisor makes disparaging remarks to an employee--because these kinds of remarks are not part of the supervisor's job. But it is discrimination when a supervisor favors or disfavors employees on prohibited grounds when making work assignments--something that is part of the supervisor's official duties.

In practice, employees often experience both discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex or ethnicity--and employers facing complaints or lawsuits for workplace harassment are sometimes sued for discrimination at the same time.

Call us for help...

For questions about the law regarding workplace harassment (sexual and non-sexual) under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act, 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. Government Code 12940 GC -- Employers, labor organizations, employment agencies and other persons; unlawful employment practice; exceptions [California harassment law]. 
  2. California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, 2015 Annual Report, at 6.
  3. See Mogilefsky v. Superior Court (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1409, 1414–15.
  4. See Government Code 12940 GC -- Employers, labor organizations, employment agencies and other persons; unlawful employment practice; exceptions [California harassment law], endnote 1 above.
  5. Hughes v. Pair (2009) 46 Cal.4th 1035, 1042. ("The other [form of sexual harassment] is sexually harassing conduct that, although not resulting in the loss of or denial of any job benefit, is so “severe or pervasive” as to create a hostile work environment. (Id. at p. 752, 118 S.Ct. 2257.) The terms “quid pro quo” and “hostile work environment” are not in Title VII's text; they first turned up in academic literature, found their way into federal appellate decisions, and after their mention  ***644 by the high court in Meritor, supra, 477 U.S. 57, 106 S.Ct. 2399, “acquired their own [legal] significance.” (Ellerth, supra, at p. 752, 118 S.Ct. 2257.)678 Under Title VII, sexual harassment is considered “severe or pervasive” only when it “ ‘ “alter[s] the conditions of [the victim's] employment and create[s] an abusive working environment.” ' ” (Clark County School Dist. v. Breeden (2001) 532 U.S. 268, 270, 121 S.Ct. 1508, 149 L.Ed.2d 509.) Taken into account must be the surrounding circumstances, such as the “ ‘ “frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.” ' ” (Id. at pp. 270–271, 121 S.Ct. 1508.) Thus, “ ‘simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes' ” in employment conditions. (Id. at p. 271, 121 S.Ct. 1508; see also Faragher v. Boca Raton (1998) 524 U.S. 775, 787–788, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662.)”)
  6. Government Code 12940 GC -- Employers, labor organizations, employment agencies and other persons; unlawful employment practice; exceptions [California harassment law], endnote 1 above.
  7. Same.
  8. Same.
  9. Same.
  10. Same. See also Department of Health Services v. Superior Court (2001). 94 Cal. App. 4th 14.
  11. Same.
  12. Government Code 12965 GC --  Civil action in name of department; group or class complaint; relief; tolling of statute of limitations 
  13. Government Code 12960 GC -- Procedure for prevention and elimination of unlawful employment practices; application of article; complaints; limitations [workplace harassment complaints to DFEH]. ("(d) No complaint may be filed after the expiration of three years from the date upon which the alleged unlawful practice or refusal to cooperate occurred . . ."); California Assembly Bill 9 (2019).
  14. Government Code 12965 GC --  Civil action in name of department; group or class complaint; relief; tolling of statute of limitations
  15. Government Code 12940 GC -- Wrongful termination over FEHA-protected activities. ("It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California . . . (h) For any employer, labor organization, employment agency, or person to discharge, expel, or otherwise discriminate against any person because the person has opposed any practices forbidden under this part or because the person has filed a complaint, testified, or assisted in any proceeding under this part.")
  16. Government Code 12940 GC -- Employers, labor organizations, employment agencies and other persons; unlawful employment practice; exceptions [California discrimination law; compare to California harassment law]. ("(a) For an employer, because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of any person, to refuse to hire or employ the person or to refuse to select the person for a training program leading to employment, or to bar or to discharge the person from employment or from a training program leading to employment, or to discriminate against the person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.")
  17. Serri v. Santa Clara University (2014), 226 Cal.App.4th 830, 869-70. ("Harassment is distinguishable from discrimination under the FEHA. “[D]iscrimination refers to bias in the exercise of official actions on behalf of the employer, and harassment refers to bias that is expressed or communicated through interpersonal relations in the workplace.” (Roby v. McKesson, Corp., supra, 47 Cal.4th p. 686, 707, 101 Cal.Rptr.3d 773, 219 P.3d 749.) As our high court explained in Reno v. Baird, “Harassment claims are based on a type of conduct that is avoidable and unnecessary to job performance. No supervisory employee needs to use slurs or derogatory drawings, to physically interfere with freedom of movement, to engage in unwanted sexual advances, etc., in order to carry out the legitimate objectives of personnel management. Every supervisory employee can insulate himself or herself from claims of harassment by refraining from such conduct. An individual supervisory employee cannot, however, refrain from engaging in the type of conduct which could later give rise to a discrimination claim. Making personnel decisions is an inherent and unavoidable part of the supervisory function. Without making personnel decisions, a supervisory employee simply cannot perform his or her job duties.”")

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