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February 15, 2024

When You CAN & CAN’T Sue Your Employer for Sexual Harassment in CA

Legally reviewed by: Jessica Anvar Stotz, JD, MBA

Yes you can sue for sexual harassment in California, but knowing when you can and cannot sue your employer for sexual harassment can be a tough and confusing process. Below we’ve listed out 18 reasons when you may or may not be able to sue for sexual harassment.

When You Can Sue for Sexual Harassment

  1. Hostile Work Environment: You can sue for sexual harassment in California if you experience a hostile work environment. This means enduring unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
  2. Quid Pro Quo Harassment: Another scenario where you can sue is if your employer or supervisor conditions employment benefits, promotions, or job security on your acceptance of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other conduct of a sexual nature.
  3. Third-Party Harassment: If you experience sexual harassment by someone who is not your employer or coworker but has association with your workplace, such as a client, customer, or vendor, you may still have grounds to sue under California law if your employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take appropriate action to stop it.
  4. Retaliation: If you are retaliated against for opposing sexual harassment or participating in an investigation or legal proceeding related to sexual harassment, you may have a separate claim for retaliation under California law, in addition to a claim for the underlying harassment.
  5. Constructive Discharge: If you are forced to resign from your job due to intolerable working conditions caused by sexual harassment, you may have grounds to sue for constructive discharge. This occurs when the employer’s actions or failure to act create a hostile work environment that a reasonable person would find intolerable.
  6. Employer Liability: Employers in California can be vicariously liable for the actions of their employees if the harassment happens within the scope of employment. Additionally, employers can be directly liable for sexual harassment if they knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.
  7. Pattern or Practice: If there is a pattern or practice of sexual harassment within an organization, you may have grounds for a lawsuit, even if someone was not personally targeting you. Demonstrating a widespread culture of harassment can strengthen your case and may lead to class-action lawsuits or investigations by government agencies.
  8. Protected Characteristics: Sexual harassment can intersect with other forms of discrimination based on protected characteristics such as race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age. If the harassment has motivation due to bias or targets individuals because of their membership in a protected class, it can give rise to additional legal claims under state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

When You Cannot Sue for Sexual Harassment

  1. Single Incidents: Generally, a single isolated incident, unless extremely severe, may not constitute sexual harassment under California law. However, repeated behavior or a pattern of conduct could still be harassment.
  2. Off-Duty Conduct: If the alleged harassment occurs outside of the workplace and does not affect your job or work environment, it may not be grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit in California. However, there can be exceptions if the conduct has a significant impact on your employment.
  3. Failure to Report: If you fail to report the harassment to your employer through the appropriate channels outlined in their policies or fail to give them a chance to address and remedy the situation, it may weaken your ability to bring a successful lawsuit later on.
  4. Statute of Limitations: In California, there are strict time limits, known as statutes of limitations, for filing a sexual harassment claim. If you wait too long to take legal action, you may lose your right to sue for harassment.
  5. Consensual Relationships: Consensual relationships, even if they initially began consensually, can sometimes lead to allegations of sexual harassment if the power dynamics change or if one party feels pressured to continue the relationship due to fear of adverse employment consequences. However, proving harassment in these situations can be complex and depends on the specific circumstances.
  6. Independent Contractor Status: If you have classification as an independent contractor rather than an employee, you may not have coverage against the same protections for sexual harassment under California law. Independent contractors generally have less legal recourse for workplace harassment compared to employees.
  7. Pre-Employment Conduct: If the alleged harassment occurred during the pre-employment process, such as during a job interview or during recruitment, it may not fall under the scope of workplace sexual harassment laws in California. However, other legal remedies may still be available depending on the circumstances.
  8. Personal Relationships: If the conduct alleged to be harassment arises from a consensual personal relationship outside of the employment context, it may not be considered actionable sexual harassment under California law. However, it’s essential to consider power dynamics and whether any coercion or abuse of authority is happening.
  9. Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies: Before filing a lawsuit for sexual harassment in California, you may be required to exhaust administrative remedies by filing a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and obtaining a right-to-sue notice.
  10. Waiver or Release: If you signed a waiver or release of claims related to sexual harassment as part of a settlement agreement or severance package, you may have waived your right to sue for harassment in the future, unless there are circumstances that render the waiver unenforceable.

Liability of Employers

In California, employers can be held liable for sexual harassment under certain circumstances, but there are also situations where they may not be held liable. Here’s an overview:

When Employers Are Liable for Sexual Harassment

Supervisor or Managerial Conduct: Employers can be held strictly liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors or managers, even if the employer was unaware of the harassment. This means that if a supervisor harasses an employee, the employer is automatically responsible, regardless of whether they knew about the harassment or took steps to prevent it.

Co-Worker Harassment: Employers may also be liable for sexual harassment by co-workers or non-supervisory employees if they knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. This typically involves having effective policies and procedures in place for reporting and addressing harassment complaints.

Third-Party Harassment: Employers can be liable for sexual harassment by third parties, such as customers, clients, or vendors, if they knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent or address it. This may include steps like warning the third party to stop the harassment or taking other appropriate actions to protect employees.

When Employers Are Not Liable for Sexual Harassment:

  • No Knowledge or Control: If the employer did not know about the harassment and could not have reasonably known about it, they may not be held liable. Similarly, if the harassment occurs outside of the scope of employment and the employer had no control over the situation, they may not be responsible.
  • Prompt and Effective Response: Employers may avoid liability for harassment if they can demonstrate that they took immediate and appropriate corrective action in response to complaints of harassment. This typically involves conducting a prompt and thorough investigation, taking disciplinary action against the harasser if necessary, and implementing measures to prevent future harassment.
  • Preventive Measures: Employers can reduce their liability for sexual harassment by implementing preventive measures, such as providing training to employees and supervisors on harassment prevention, maintaining clear policies and procedures for reporting harassment, and fostering a culture of respect and accountability in the workplace.

Overall, employers in California can be liable for sexual harassment under various circumstances, but their liability could have influence from factors such as their knowledge of the harassment, their response to complaints, and their efforts to prevent harassment from occurring in the first place.

What Compensation Can Someone Receive for Sexual Harassment in California?

In California, individuals who successfully prove sexual harassment in the workplace may be able to receive various forms of compensation. These can include:

  • Compensatory Damages: Compensatory damages intend to compensate the victim for the harm they suffered as a result of the harassment. This may include damages for emotional distress, mental anguish, and other psychological injuries caused by the harassment.
  • Back Pay and Front Pay: Victims of sexual harassment may receive back pay, which compensates them for wages or benefits they lost as a result of the harassment, such as lost wages due to leaving their job unwillingly. Additionally, they may receive front pay, which compensates for future lost earnings if they are unable to return to their previous job or must accept a lower-paying position due to the harassment.
  • Punitive Damages: In cases of egregious or intentional misconduct, courts may award punitive damages to punish the harasser and deter similar conduct in the future. Punitive damages intend to send a message that such behavior will not be tolerated.
  • Attorneys’ Fees and Costs: If the victim prevails in a sexual harassment lawsuit, they may be able to recover their attorneys’ fees and costs during the course of the case. This helps ensure that victims have access to legal representation and encourages attorneys to take on meritorious harassment cases.
  • Injunctive Relief: In addition to monetary compensation, courts may also grant injunctive relief, such as ordering the employer to implement policies and procedures to prevent future harassment, providing training to employees and supervisors on harassment prevention, or taking disciplinary action against the harasser.

It’s important to note that the specific amount of compensation awarded in a sexual harassment case can vary depending on factors such as the severity of the harassment, the emotional impact on the victim, the duration of the harassment, and the financial losses suffered as a result. Additionally, each case is unique, and the appropriate parties determine compensation due to the individual circumstances of the case.

Estimate What Your Case Might Be Worth

Looking to see what your potential sexual harassment case might be worth? Use our sexual harassment settlement calculator below to get an approximate settlement estimate in 90 seconds or less.

What Might a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Look Like?

A sexual harassment lawsuit in California typically follows a series of steps, which can vary depending on the specific circumstances of the case. Here’s an overview of what a sexual harassment lawsuit might look like in California:

  • Consultation with an Attorney: The process often begins with the victim of sexual harassment consulting with an experienced employment attorney to discuss their situation and explore their legal options. During this initial consultation, the attorney will review the facts of the case, assess the strength of potential claims, and advise the victim on the best course of action.
  • Filing a Complaint with Government Agencies: Before filing a lawsuit in court, the court may require the victim to file a complaint with the appropriate government agency, such as the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This initiates an administrative investigation into the allegations of harassment.
  • Obtaining a Right-to-Sue Notice: After filing a complaint with a government agency, the victim will typically receive a right-to-sue notice, which gives them permission to file a lawsuit in court. They usually issue the notice after the administrative agency completes its investigation or after a specified period of time passes.
  • Filing a Lawsuit: With the right-to-sue notice in hand, the victim can proceed to file a lawsuit against the alleged harasser(s) and/or their employer in state or federal court. The complaint will outline the allegations of sexual harassment and the legal claims being asserted, such as hostile work environment or quid pro quo harassment.
  • Discovery: Once someone files a lawsuit, both parties engage in the discovery process, where they exchange information and evidence relevant to the case. This may include documents, emails, personnel records, and witness testimony related to the alleged harassment.
  • Mediation or Settlement Negotiations: Prior to trial, the parties may attempt to resolve the case through mediation or settlement negotiations. This involves facilitated discussions with the goal of reaching a mutually acceptable resolution without the need for a trial.
  • Trial: If the case does not settle, it will proceed to trial, where the victim will have the opportunity to present evidence and testimony in support of their claims of sexual harassment. The defendant(s) will have the opportunity to defend against the allegations and present their own evidence.
  • Verdict and Appeal: After hearing the evidence and arguments presented by both sides, the judge or jury will render a verdict determining whether sexual harassment occurred and, if so, what damages are appropriate. Either party may have the right to appeal the verdict or certain legal rulings made during the trial.

Throughout this process, it’s essential for the victim to have the support of their sexual harassment attorney, who can provide guidance, advocacy, and representation to help them navigate the complexities of the legal system and pursue justice for the harm they have suffered due to sexual harassment.

Connect with an Attorney

Have questions about your potential sexual harassment case? Contact us today to connect with some of the best sexual harassment attorneys in the state. All initial consultations are free.

About the Author

Jessica Anvar

California Consumer Litigation Attorney Jessica Anvar, Esq. is the Founder and Managing Partner of Lemon Law Experts California’s leading lemon law firm. She has multiple years’ worth of experience working with both state and federal lemon laws. Her practice focuses exclusively on consumer protection cases. Ms. Anvar received her J.D. from Loyola Law School. She also earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Loyola Marymount University. Jessica is very active in her local legal community and has helped thousands of clients across the state of California. She has an outstanding record as a true advocate for consumers.

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