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What is the Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment in California?

Guidance provided by Melmed Law Group P.C - Sexual Harassment Lawyers in California

What is the Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment in California?

Sexual Harassment in California involves inappropriate or unwanted verbal or physical behavior with a sexual intent. 

California defines which motives are illegal but does not have a list of which actions are illegal. There is no clear line which constitutes an action as harassment. 

In the workplace, there are two types of sexual harassment claims which are Hostile work environment sexual harassment and quid pro quo sexual harassment. 

Quid pro quo 

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when sexual favors are requested or demanded by an employer for an employed-related incentive such as a raise or promotion. 

Often, quid pro quo cases involve unwanted sexual advancements, inappropriate discussion of sexual acts in front of the employee, or comments on the employee's body and the sexual uses to which it can be to use. These comments don't always have to be expressed directly, as indirect comments can also constitute as quid pro quo harassment. 

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is a serious offense and even one instance can be enough to bring forth a lawsuit as long as tangible employment actions resulted from denying the sexual request. 

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

Hostile work environment sexual harassment are behaviors that turn a work environment into a hostile and intimidating workplace. Regardless of motive, this type of behavior is unlawful. To properly consider it as hostile work environment sexual harassment, the condition must be frequent, severe, or both. 

This type of sexual harassment violates the law when the conduct is objectively abusive. The sexual harassment must also subjectively offend, distress, or target the victim. 

To prove the victim suffered, they must demonstrate at least one of the following:
  • Emotional distress while they're in the workplace 
  • The harassment affected their performance at work
  • The harassment undermined the victim's sense of well-being
For most cases that aren't severe violations such as rape or physical assault, victims must show repeated instances of hostile workplace sexual harassment to support a claim of this type. 

Common Examples of Sexual Harassment

  • Unwanted physical touching: This occurs when an employer comes into contact with the victim's body when unwarranted. Serious violations such as rape and physical assault make it likely that a court will find the employer guilty, however this also applies to less serious violations, especially if it occurs in repetitions, such as an employer placing their hands on a victim's shoulder while talking to them. 
  • Sexually Derogatory Comments: These are verbal comments that are directed at the victim. They my come in the form of jokes, insults, and slurs. In California, comments alone can justify as a violation of sexual harassment. But the comments must occur frequently and be pervasive to have weight in the eyes of the court. An example is a employer calling all of his female employees with a derogatory term based on their gender. 
  • Inappropriate Requests: Most one-time inappropriate requests does not suffice as sexual harassment. However, repeated requests can, or if the employer subjects punishment in the form of termination or lower the victim's wage for denying their request. 
  • Favoritism: California law prohibits sex-based discrimination. This kind of discrimination can occur when employers reward employees who have sex with them and punish those who don't. This type of sexual harassment holds more weight when sexual interactions between an employer and employees occur pervasively and involve more than 1 employee.  

Guidance provided by Melmed Law Group P.C - Sexual Harassment Lawyers in California

About the Author
Jonathan Melmed
Posted - 04/28/2020 | California