Understanding California’s laws on hostile work environments

This blog post will help explain the laws in California that protect workers from hostile work environments. Workplace hostility can take many forms, but most often involve a pattern of harassment or bullying from a supervisor, co-worker, or customer that creates an uncomfortable atmosphere for everyone involved. Unfortunately, many cases of workplace hostility are not addressed and the affected individuals are unable to receive justice. Fortunately, California has laws in place to help protect workers from hostile work environments. Understanding the complexities of California’s hostile work environment laws can be overwhelming for those who are unfamiliar with them. In this blog post, we will provide an overview of how these laws are enforced, what they cover, and how a lawyer can help victims of workplace hostility pursue legal action. We will explain the various definitions of hostile work environments and what constitutes a violation of the law, as well as discuss the necessary steps to take when filing a hostile work environment complaint. We will also touch on potential remedies, including damages, and how to choose the right lawyer to represent you.

Discrimination, Harassment, and Discrimination: The Differences and Different Definitions

Some basics. First of all, just because somebody is being mean to you at work does not mean you are being subjected to a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment is a legal term and it has a precise legal meaning. In fact, this entire video is going to be us covering different parts of the definition of a hostile work environment. Secondly, when I use the term “hostile work environment,” I mean harassment. And when I use the term “harassment,” I mean hostile work environment. For all intense and purposes, California Employment Law treats those two terms the same. Third, you need to understand three different things. Well, the distinction between three different things. Discrimination, that is when a company takes an adverse action against an employee because of a protected characteristic.

An Overview of the Hostile Work Environment Law in a Case of Discrimination and Harassment

Harassment is when somebody’s treated poorly at work because of a protected characteristic. Bullying on the other hand, is when somebody is just treated poorly. Discrimination and harassment are unlawful. And the reason they are unlawful is that because of protected characteristics, which we are gonna cover in just a minute.

California’s Hostile Work Environment Law can be found in the California Governmental Code Section 12940 Subsection J, and that law is further refined and better explained in the jury instructions, the instructions that are actually read to the jury in a harassment case. Section 2521 Subsection A, that kind of outlines a bunch of factors. But the four main ones to explain in this video, are as follows.

A harassed employee must first show that the harassing conduct or comments was unwelcome. You have to show that it was because of a protected class or category, which we’ll again, cover in a second. You have to show that the harassment was so severe or pervasive as to alter the working environment to create an abusive working environment. And finally, you have to show that the company knew or should have known that the harassment was occurring. That’s in order to hold the employer liable.

Now, a lot of times when people think of a hostile work environment case, they automatically equate that to be sexual harassment. Now, that’s not true. A hostile work environment can encompass many different categories, but because sexual harassment is such a big component of hostile work environment cases, we actually made an entire video just about sexual harassment. So we’re not gonna go into sexual harassment really at all in this article.

Unwelcomeness Standards in a Hostile Work Environment Case

Let’s unpack that unwelcome standard in more detail. If you think about it, one person might hear a comment at work, and it’ll roll right off their back. Yet another person might hear that exact same comment and be devastated. It all depends on the person. So one of the essential elements of a hostile work environment case is that you found the conduct or comments offensive and unwelcome. And the best way to do that is to have some objective evidence to show that you found this stuff offensive. Well, what does that mean? Well, like a written complaint to HR, that’s the best way to show that you found this to be offensive. Or a written complaint to a manager, the president of the company, or a lower-level manager, somebody who has the ability to do something about the harassment. You can also show some objective evidence.

If there are coworkers who witnessed the harassment, who saw you crying afterwards, or you went and complained to them about it, all of that is testimony that a lawyer can use to convince a jury that you found this to be offensive. In order to prevail in a harassment case, you have to show that the harassment was motivated in substantial part or in large part because of one of these protected categories. So let’s go through them.

Race, religion, color, national origin, and genetic information—those cases are very rare. Sex includes not only sexual harassment and, you know, physical sex, but also pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. You can’t harass somebody because of their gender identity or their age.

If they’re over the age of 40, you can’t harass somebody because they’re the old guy or the old gal at the office. Military status, ancestry, and physical disability Mental disabilities, medical conditions—those are the kinds of disabilities that we talk about a lot in employment law. Marital status, gender—you can’t pick on the females at the office or the males at the office. You can’t pick on somebody because of their gender. Gender expression, sexual orientation, and veteran status Now, the most common harassment cases that we see as employment lawyers—race, religion, and sex—should be obvious ones; age is very common in California. disability cases, and we see sexual orientation cases quite often.

What the Jury Really Looks at in the Case of Harassment

Remember, in order to prevail in a harassment case, you have to show that the conduct or comments were so severe or pervasive that they altered the working conditions to create an abusive working environment. Well, okay, what does the jury actually look at? Well, they kind of look at four things. They first look at the nature of the conduct or comments, how offensive was it from a reasonable person’s standpoint as opposed to, you know, is this just kind of an eggshell plaintiff? Secondly, they look at the frequency. Did this happen one time or did it happen over the course of six months? Dozens of times. Was the behavior done in any physical sense? Was there physical touching or was it just comments or gestures? And finally, was the behavior… Did it unreasonably interfere with the employee’s job performance? That’s a big one that can’t be understated.

In order to hold the company liable, you have to show that the company knew or should have known that the harassment was taking place. Well, let’s unpack that a little bit further here. Okay, this is really easy. If the harassment is being conducted by a managerial employee, boom, automatic liability

for the company. And it doesn’t have to be your manager, just a managerial employee, if the harassment is being done by a manager of any kind, company is automatically liable. But, if the harassment is being done by a co-worker and not a manager, then you need to show that the company knew or should have known that the harassment was taking place. Well, this is usually pretty easy to show if you’ve written a complaint to HR, company knows, knew or should have known. If you complained about it verbally, company knew or should have known. If a manager witnessed the harassing conduct, okay, they knew or should have known. So that’s a fairly easy thing to show in most of these cases.

The Type of Damages that Are Available to You in the Era of Discriminant Employment

If you feel like your situation meets the definition of a hostile work environment, should you actually file your case? Well, let’s look at the type of remedies that are available to you. First, your economic damages. These are damages for lost wages. If you complain about harassment to HR or to the management of the company and then you’re fired, well you’re not making your salary anymore. That’s a very tangible economic loss that the jury can measure. Secondly, emotional distress damages. These are the damages for the pain and suffering that somebody goes through as a result of the unlawful harassment.

These are very real, especially in severe cases and often the largest component. Third, you can get your attorney fees. California Governmental Code 12940 is a part of the FEHA Statute the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, which allows for the recovery of attorney fees which is great because it is a large and significant hammer that can often push these employers into an early settlement discussion. Finally, you can get punitive damages. Now, these are difficult, ’cause you have to show that the harassment was done with malice, oppression or fraud, which has a higher burden of proof. But if you have a good lawyer, he or she can ring that bell more often than others, and so, you’d want to really make sure you hire a good lawyer.

Finally, should you file your case? What would it be worth? Well, we don’t know. There’s no published averages as to the average harassment case because settlements are confidential, so lawyers don’t know. Now I can say this, if you are able to find a good employment lawyer to take your hostile work environment case and that lawyer invests their own time and energy and money into the case and they take it on a contingency fee, which means they don’t get paid unless they win or they settle a case, you can rest assured

that they’re going to maximize the value of that case. So if you can find a lawyer to take your case, you probably should pursue it. But if you can’t find a lawyer to take your case, might not be in your best interest, but call a couple. Don’t give up on the first one. That’s all I have for you, take care.

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