Sexual harassment in the workplace and the #MeToo Movement

March 14, 2018 | 9:25 am


Chain | Cohn | Stiles workers’ compensation* attorney Beatriz Trejo recently made a presentation in front of the Kern County Paralegal Association focused on ethical obligations to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, and the #MeToo Movement. Below is a synopsis of that “Minimum Continuing Legal Education” presentation. 

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* Please note: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting wrongful termination and sexual harassment cases *

Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is an ethical obligation of all employees, in addition to a serious legal issue.

More recently, we have seen uprising of people who have gone public with their stories of sexual harassment, assault and abuse, and systemic sexism. The “Me Too” hashtag campaign has spread virally to denounce sexual assault and harassment, and millions have used the hashtag to come forward with their own experiences.

Below is a timeline of legal and societal landmarks that led to our current state:

  • 1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin. It is commonly referred to as “Title VII,” because that’s the part of the act that covers employment. Title VII covers both men and women, but its original intent was to protect women in the workplace. This remains its main emphasis today.
  • 1986: In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court rules that sexual harassment can be sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. The case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson ruled that speech in itself can create a hostile environment, which violates the law.
  • 1991: The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is passed. Congress modifies Title VII to add more protection against discrimination in the workplace. Among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 allows harassment and discrimination plaintiffs the right to a jury trial in federal court. It also gives plaintiffs the right to collect compensatory and punitive damages for the first time, subject to a cap based on the size of the employer.
  • 1993: Harris v. Forklift Systems is handed down. Here the plaintiff worked as a manager of a company that rented heavy equipment to construction companies. Forklift’s president continually made the plaintiff the target of comments such as, “You’re a woman, what do you know?,” and, “We need a man as the rental manager.”
  • 2004: Facebook is launched.
  • 2006: Tarana Burke uses the term “Me Too” to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment.
  • 2006: Twitter is launched.
  • October 2017: Actress Ashley Judd accuses media mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. Actress Alissa Milano tweets, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘Me Too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Half a million people responded to the tweet in 24 hours. After the tweet, Facebook reported 12 million posts and comments regarding #MeToo. Within 24 hours 45 percent of all U.S. Facebook users knew someone who had posted #MeToo. The stories posted recounted stories in the entertainment industry, sports, politics, military, and law.
  • December 2017: The #MeToo movement “Silence Breakers” are named 2017’s “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine.

Today, we all continue to be protected against harassment under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules, which state:

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.

Still, harassment continues. In fact, an October 2017 poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found the following:

  • 48 percent of women stated that they have received an unwelcome sexual advance or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature at work.
  • 41 percent of men stated that they have observed inappropriate sexual conduct directed to women at work.
  • 63 percent of Americans in October 1991 believed sexual harassment occurred in most workplaces.
  • 66 percent of Americans in October 2017 believe sexual harassment occurs in most workplaces.

But legal remedies to fight against harassment continue to exist as well. Claims may be filed with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the courts. And if the law is violated, damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs may be ordered.

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If you or a someone you know needs assistance with a potential accident, injury or workers’ compensation case, it’s important to contact an attorney, call the lawyers at Chain | Cohn | Stiles for a free consultation at 661-323-4000, or visit the website chainlaw.com.

To learn more about workers’ compensation associate attorney Beatriz Trejo, click here.

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*NOTICE: Making a false or fraudulent Workers’ Compensation claim is a felony subject to up to 5 years in a prison or a fine of up to $150,000 or double the value of the fraud, whichever is greater, or by both imprisonment and fine.

Sexual harassment in the workplace persists, but with the law on the victim’s side

February 15, 2017 | 8:48 am


The following article written by Chain | Cohn | Stiles lawyer Neil Gehlawat appeared in the February-March 2017 issue of the Kern Business Journal. To view the PDF print version of the Kern Business Journal click here, and read the entire publication, click here

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* Please note: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting sexual harassment cases *

* Neil Gehlawat is no longer an attorney with Chain | Cohn | Stiles *

Sexual harassment is, unfortunately, still a prevalent occurrence in the workplace.

According to a recent study conducted at the South by Southwest conference in 2016, two-thirds of women reported having experienced “unwanted sexual attention” at work. Moreover, a survey conducted by Cosmopolitan magazine revealed that one in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 have been sexually harassed at work. Sexual harassment is evidently more prevalent in the service industry, where a 2014 survey by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 90 percent of women feel forced to “curry favor” with their customers when working for tips.

Even worse, 70 percent of women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace do not report for fear of repercussions, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is a disappointing statistic, because there are laws in place both in California and in the United States to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace.

In California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, applies to both public and private employers and prohibits sexual harassment against employees, applicants, volunteers, unpaid interns and even contractors in the workplace. You can file a complaint online by visiting the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) website, but it is recommended that you contact an attorney before making such a complaint. The statute of limitations in California requires employees to obtain a right to sue notice letter from the DFEH within one year of the alleged harassment. The employee then has one year from the date of the right to sue notice letter to file a lawsuit.

Moreover, the FEHA requires employers of 50 or more employees to provide sexual harassment training to supervisory employees. The FEHA department permits employees to submit complaints if they have reason to believe that their employer has not complied with this requirement.

Sexual harassment is also prohibited under federal law. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment can range from inappropriate sexual jokes, to inappropriate touching. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically protects employees from sex-based discrimination, which includes sexual harassment, in the workplace and applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

I advise victims of sexual harassment to take the following steps.

  • First, tell the person harassing you to stop. You may do so in person, but you should also put your request in writing; for example, in the form of an email.
  • If this does not work, or if you are uncomfortable about taking such action, consult your employment manual. You need to follow the protocol laid out in the employment manual, if it exists.
  • If it does not exist, you should notify your human resources department or your supervisor, and inform them – in person, and in writing – about the sexual harassment. If the harassment persists, even despite taking the above steps, then you should contact an attorney immediately to weigh your options.

It is illegal under both state and federal law for an employer to retaliate against an employee for making a sexual harassment complaint. If you are the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, document your complaints in writing, take action, and always remember that the law is on your side.

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MEDIA COVERAGE / RELATED ARTICLES

Chain | Cohn | Stiles on The Groove: How to know if you have a case against your employer

October 2, 2014 | 4:00 am


* Update: Chain | Cohn | Stiles is no longer accepting wrongful termination and sexual harassment cases *

Losing a job when you didn’t deserve to lose it, or dealing with a hostile work environment can be traumatic. Unfortunately, these situations happen all too often.

The reality is that employment law tends to be very favorable for employers, making it that much more important to contact an attorney who handles employment law cases right away, if you think you’ve been wrongfully terminated, sexually harassed in the workplace, or are dealing with an employment-related injury. Having an attorney will keep you from making mistakes, or agreeing to things that may negatively impact your ability to pursue a case. Secondly, an attorney will be able to inform you of the necessary steps you must take before taking any action against your employer.

These are just some of the tips provided by the Bakersfield wrongful termination and employment law attorney Neil Gehlawat of Chain | Cohn | Stiles recently while on the air with Sheri Ortiz on The Groove 99.3.

He also discussed how to know if you have a case, the necessary steps to take if you think you have a case, and other tips for employment cases.

You can listen to the two short segments here:

Employment law cases are essentially divided into two types, shared Gehlawat:

  • Wrongful termination
  • Hostile work environment/sexual harassment

The agency in California that oversees employment-related matters is the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The law in California requires employees to “exhaust their administrative remedies” before pursuing legal action against their employer. That means that employees in most cases need to obtain a “Right to Sue” letter from department before they can sue their employer in court. Directions for doing this can be found on the department website (www.dfeh.ca.gov), but it is highly recommended that you contact an attorney before filling out any forms with department.

Provided that you are an at-will employee, in California, the law permits employers to hire and fire employees at will, provided that the hiring or firing decisions are not discriminatory in nature, or do not violate public policy.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits employers from retaliating against employees, or subjecting them to a hostile work environment, because they are members of a protected class.  “Protected class” means (and is not limited to) age, religion, national origin, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and others. In other words, an employer cannot fire you because you are African American, or because you are a senior citizen and replace you with someone much younger, or because you are Jewish, for example. If you believe that being part of a protected class is the reason for retaliatory action taken against you, you should consider speaking with an attorney.

There are some other instances where you may have a case, but those instances are limited. For example, if you are a whistle blower, meaning you report the wrongful or illegal activity of your employer to a higher-up and you are then fired or disciplined for it, you may have a case. Or if you’re injured on the job, and file a workers’ compensation* claim, your employer cannot fire you. In the last case, they must also make an effort to engage in a good faith interactive process to see if they can reasonably accommodate you, even with injuries you have sustained on the job.

Finally, Gehlawat shared some tips.

It is important for employees to always put things in writing. Employment cases always turn into “he-said, she-said” cases, and putting things on writing can go a long way to help your case. If you’re having an issue at work, send an email or write a letter, and notify your supervisor or human resources representative. Keep records of everything you put in writing so that it is documented and it does not get lost. Second, if you’re being harassed or subjected to a hostile work environment, you need to report it in writing. You need to give your employer a reasonable opportunity to correct the problem, and if you do not, it may negatively affect your case.

Gehlawat said if you take just two things away from this blog post and the radio spot, it’s this:

  • Talk to an attorney early.
  • Document everything in writing.

* Editor’s Note: Neil Gehlawat is no longer an attorney with Chain | Cohn | Stiles *

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*NOTICE: Making a false or fraudulent Workers’ Compensation claim is a felony subject to up to 5 years in a prison or a fine of up to $150,000 or double the values of the fraud, whichever is greater, or by both imprisonment and fine.