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.

5 new California laws in 2018 call for safer streets and workplaces

December 27, 2017 | 9:17 am


The New Year also means new laws for California.

Several laws will take effect starting Jan. 1, including several transportation-related rules and changes. They include laws related to marijuana and driving, seat belts on buses, and a new blood alcohol concentration limit for Uber drivers.

Because Chain | Cohn | Stiles focuses on motor vehicle accidents and other roadway related injury cases, we wanted to share some of these changes as we start 2018. And since the Bakersfield-based law firm also represents victims of workplace harassment, we also share one new law related to employer supervisor training.

Learn a little more about these new laws below, courtesy of the California Department of Motor Vehicles:

Marijuana Use in Vehicles (SB 65): This law prohibits using marijuana or marijuana products while driving or riding as a passenger in a vehicle. This includes smoking marijuana and consuming edibles in vehicles. Similar to the “open container” laws, marijuana products must be locked away or sealed in a container. If you break this law, you’ll get a negligent operator point counts. The same goes for motorcycle riders. The new law will be implemented after officers pull motorists over for separate moving violations.

Commercial Buses and Seat Belts (SB 20): This law requires passengers on commercial buses to put on a seat belt. Kids over 8 years old but under 16 years old won’t be allowed to ride unless they are restrained by a seat belt; otherwise, parents and legal guardians will be fined $20 on the first violation, and $50 thereafter.

DUI, Passenger for Hire (AB 2687): This one begins July 1, 2018, and this law makes it illegal for anyone to drive with a blood alcohol concentration of .04 percent or higher if there is a passenger in the vehicle who has hired the driver — like Ubers or Lyfts. This is a higher standard than the current .08 BAC for all drivers. Punishment is a suspended driver’s license if convicted.

Motorcycle Training (AB 1027): This law authorizes the DMV to accept a certificate of satisfactory completion of any motorcyclist-training program approved by the California Highway Patrol in the place of a required motorcycle skills test. Applicants for an original motorcycle license or motorcycle endorsement under 21 years of age are still required to complete a novice motorcyclist-training program.

Harassment Training (SB 396): Especially relevant now during the “Me Too” movement, employers with 50 or more employees — who are already legally required to conduct two hours of sexual harassment training every two years — must include training for supervisors that includes harassment based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.

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

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If you or someone you know is injured in a vehicle accident at the fault of someone, contact the lawyers at Chain | Cohn | Stiles by calling (661) 323-4000 or visit the website chainlaw.com.

#MeToo: How to protect yourself from sexual harassment, assault and abuse

November 29, 2017 | 7:00 am


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

Recently, the United States has seen an uprising of women (and men, too) who have gone public with their stories of sexual harassment, assault and abuse, and systemic sexism, particularly in the world of Hollywood.

The “Me Too” campaign has spread virally to denounce sexual assault and harassment in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer and executive Harvey Weinstein. Millions of people throughout the world have used the #MeToo hashtag to come forward with their own experiences.

Sadly, these types of cases are all too familiar in Kern County as well. In fact, Chain | Cohn | Stiles has represented dozens of victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, and sex assault and abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers, employment supervisors, and others in roles of power.

Earlier this year, Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney Neil Gehlawat contributed an article to the Kern Business Journal that outlined how sexual assault and harassment victims could fight back, specifically in the workplace. That article below has been re-purposed here:

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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 a 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.

* Note: Neil Gehlawat is no longer an attorney at Chain | Cohn | Stiles *

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Contact Chain | Cohn | Stiles at 661-323-4000, or visit the website Chainlaw.com.