Court of Appeals Denies Employer Liability Because of the Existence of a Personal Relationship Between Plaintiff and Alleged Perpetrator

According to California’s Fair Employment Housing Act (FEHA), an employer is strictly liable for harassment by supervisors. Strict liability means an employer is liable regardless of whether they knew about the harassment or tried to remedy the situation. In California, a supervisor is someone with the authority and discretion to hire, promote, transfer, assign, direct, discipline, reward, or discharge workers or recommend these actions. However, while the law generally holds employers strictly liable for harassment by supervisors, one recent court decision shows that there are limitations to this general rule. Specifically, according to the decision in question, there is a limitation when a personal relationship exists between the employee and supervisor.

In this particular case, the plaintiff filed a sexual harassment claim against her supervisor. For purposes of this article, we shall refer to the plaintiff as H.A. and the supervisor as E.L. H.A. filed her sexual harassment claim after E.L. sent her a live picture of his genitals. After H.A. filed her claim, the employer denied liability on the grounds that the interaction between H.A. and E.L. did not happen at work and that E.L. wasn’t acting in the capacity of a supervisor when he sent H.A. the photo of his genitals. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. H.A. then appealed, arguing that the text message and her friendship with E.L. were connected to the workplace because the interaction existed because she wanted career progression.

After thorough consideration, the California Court of Appeal sided with the trial court. According to the court, the interaction between H.A. and E.L. happened outside of work and outside regular working hours. E.L.’s conduct, in this case, was not imputable to the employer because he was not acting in the capacity of a supervisor when he sent the inappropriate text. According to the court, the interaction between H.A. and E.L. originated from a personal exchange that came about because of the friendship between H.A. and E.L. The court found that the friendship between H.A. and E.L. existed even before they came to work in the same place and that their relationship was independent of their employment. There were enough text messages and previous scenarios of socializing outside of work to support the court’s ruling.

The court did not ignore the fact that the plaintiff’s interactions with E.L. could have been motivated by her wanting to advance her carrier. However, according to the Court of Appeal, even if that was the case, it did not change the fact of the personal relationship or that H.A. willingly participated in the relationship. 

In short, according to this case, in California, an employer is not liable when an employee files a sexual harassment case against a supervisor if there is not enough connection between the supervisor’s conduct and their employment. An employer is not liable for a supervisor’s acts of harassment arising from a personal relationship separate from work and happening outside of work or regular working hours.

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