Plaintiff Victoria Ztwick worked as a correctional office for the County of Yolo. See Zetwick v. County of Yolo.  She sued thekids hugging County and her supervisor, Sheriff Edward Prieto alleging that the supervisor’s conduct over a 12-year period created a hostile work environment.  She alleged the harassment consisted of Prieto hugging her on more than one hundred occasions and kissed her at least once.

Ztwick alleged Prieto created a sexually hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), CAL. GOV’T CODE § 12900 et seq.  Defendants argued that that such conduct was not objectively severe or pervasive enough to establish a hostile work environment under the law.  Defendants maintained that the activity was innocuous, socially acceptable conduct.  The lower trial court agreed with defendants’ arguments and granted their motion for summary judgment.  However, the Ninth Circuit court of Appeals overturned the trial’s court’s order and remanded the case to the lower court for trial.  This Friday’s Five focuses on five lessons employers should take away from the Zetwick v. County of Yolo case.

1. Hugging can create a hostile work environment

Defendants maintained that most of the hugs were during parties involving sheriff’s office employees, award banquets, GED graduations for prisoners, and some training sessions or meetings, but never when Prieto and the plaintiff were alone.  Plaintiff admitted that there was only one incident that Prieto kissed her at an awards ceremony.  He kissed plaintiff to congratulate her on her recent marriage, and plaintiff alleged that the kiss was partially on the lips because she turned her head.  She alleges she complained to her supervising lieutenants, but they did not forward the complaint for any investigation or resolution.

Plaintiff alleges that she also saw Prieto hug and kiss other female employees, but never saw him hug male employees.  Defendants argued that even Plaintiff herself described the hugs as ones that friends or relatives give each other.  In addition, defendants contended that plaintiff simply never saw when Prieto would hug male co-workers and that the hugs were not only directed towards plaintiff or females.

To succeed in proving hostile work environment harassment, a plaintiff must prove “(1) that he was subjected to verbal or physical conduct of a harassing nature, (2) that this conduct was unwelcome, and (3) that the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”

The appellate court held that there was enough evidence presented by plaintiff to at least have a trial:

We hold that, giving the record proper consideration, a reasonable juror could conclude that the differences in hugging of men and women were not, as the defendants argue, just “genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex.”

2. To be illegal, harassment must be both objectively offensive to a reasonable person and subjectively offensive in that the victim felt it was offensive

The appellate court set forth the standard required for a victim to allege harassment:

To be actionable under Title VII, a sexually objectionable environment must be both objectively and subjectively offensive, one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive, and one that the victim in fact did perceive to be so.” Geo Grp., Inc., 816 F.3d at 1206 (internal quotation marks omitted).

The appellate court found that given the testimony that Prieto hugged plaintiff more than one hundred times over a 12-year period, hugged female employees more often than male employees, and as plaintiff observed Prieto only hugging females, that plaintiff met the subjective and objective showing requirement.  This evidence was sufficient to establish the possibility that a reasonable jury could find in plaintiff’s favor.

3. Hugging could be outside of the “ordinary workplace socializing”

In rejecting defendants’ argument that the hugs in this case were “ordinary workplace socializing” that could not be the basis of a sexual harassment lawsuit, the court explained:

[W]hile it may appear that Prieto’s hugs were “common” in the workplace, and that some other crossgender hugging occurred, neither of those things demonstrates beyond dispute that Prieto’s hugging was within the scope of “ordinary workplace socializing.” A reasonable juror could find, for example, from the frequency of the hugs, that Prieto’s conduct was out of proportion to “ordinary workplace socializing” and had, instead, become abusive. See Geo Grp., Inc., 816 F.3d at 1206 (citing factors relevant to the determination of whether the environment was sufficiently hostile or abusive, including the “frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

4. There is no set number of harassing incidents that results in liability

The court was clear in the case that there is no “magic number of harassing incidents’ that would give rise to liability.”  The totality of the circumstances are taken into account in determining whether a reasonable juror would find the types of hugs and the number of hugs created a hostile environment.  This is why it is so important for employers to continually counsel employees who do not act professionally in the workplace.

5. Alleged supervisory harassment is taken more seriously

The appellate court also held the trial court erred by “completely overlook[ing] legal recognition of the potentially greater impact of harassment from a supervisor and, indeed, the highest ranking officer in the department. The Supreme Court has recognized that ‘acts of supervisors have greater power to alter the environment than acts of co-employees generally.’”  Like it or not, the appellate court looked at the fact that the accused harasser was a supervisor in this case as one of the circumstances it considered in holding that the plaintiff presented enough evidence that a reasonable jury could agree with.

A former employee at Uber has made news this week in claiming that she was subjected to sexual question markharassment while working at Uber, and her complaints were not satisfactorily resolved.  I don’t want to get into the judgment of who was possibly right or wrong in this case, but use it as a good opportunity for employers to review the basics of their obligations to investigate when an employee complains.  This Friday’s Five is the first of two posts on employer’s obligations to conduct prompt and effective investigations into harassment complaints.

1. Employers have a duty to conduct investigations.

Employers can be liable under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) if they “fail to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring.”  In addition, Government Code section 12940, subdivision (k), requires employers to take “all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring.”  If the employer fails to take the preventative measures, they can be held liable for the harassment between co-workers.  If the harassment occurs by a manager, the company is strictly liable for the harassment.  If the harassment occurred by a non-management employee, the employer is only liable if it does not take immediate and appropriate corrective action to stop the harassment once it learns about the harassment.

2. The employer may have to take action before conducting the investigation.

Based on the allegations and the facts of the case, as a precautionary measure, the employer should analyze if any immediate steps needs to be taken.  The EEOC set forth examples of precautionary steps that may be necessary include: “scheduling changes so as to avoid contact between the parties; transferring the alleged harasser; or placing the alleged harasser on non-disciplinary leave with pay pending the conclusion of the investigation.”  However, the employer needs to ensure that the complainant “should not be involuntarily transferred or otherwise burdened, since such measures could constitute unlawful retaliation.”

3. The investigation must be effective.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHC) maintains that employers must “[f]ully and effectively investigate.  The investigation must be immediate, thorough, objective and complete.  Anyone with information on the matter should be interviewed.  A determination must be made and the results communicated to the complaint, to the alleged harasser, and, as appreciate, to all others directly concerned.”

4. The investigation must be immediate.

How soon the investigation must start depends on the circumstances.  In Van Zant v. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, 80 F.3d 708, 715 (2d Cir. 1996) the employer’s response was held to be prompt where it began investigation on the day that complaint was made, conducted interviews within two days, and fired the harasser within ten days.  In Steiner v. Showboat Operating Co., 25 F.3d 1459, 1464 (9th Cir. 1994), the court held that an employer’s response to complaints were not immediate when it did not seriously investigate or reprimand the supervisor until after plaintiff filed charge with state FEP agency, even though the harasser was eventually discharged.  In Saxton v. AT&T, 10 F.3d 526, 535 (7th Cir 1993) the court found that the investigation was prompt when it started one day after complaint and a detailed report was completed two weeks later.  In Nash v. Electrospace Systems, Inc. 9 F.3d 401, 404 (5th Cir. 1993) the court held that the investigation was prompt when completed within one week.  The court in Juarez v. Ameritech Mobile Communications, Inc., 957 F.2d 317, 319 (7th Cir. 1992) found the investigation was adequate when completed in four days.

5. The investigator must be experienced, unbiased and trusted. 

There is no legal prohibition that internal employees, such as the human resources manager, can conduct investigations into employee’s complaints.  If an internal employee of the company, the investigator does not have to meet any certain training requirements or are they required any particular background.  However, if the case results in litigation, employers should carefully consider who they appoint as the investigator as their background, credentials, and experience will be closely examined in court.

The employee obviously cannot have a conflict of interest or any bias towards the victim or alleged harasser.  Also, the alleged wrongdoer should not have any managerial control over the investigator in the organization.  If the alleged wrongdoer is a high level executive in the organization, then it may be appropriate to hire an outside lawyer versed in conducting harassment investigations to avoid any challenges to the adequacy of the investigation.  The investigator should have some experience in conducting investigations, some background knowledge of the law regarding harassment, understand the appropriate structure of how to conduct the investigation (i.e., who to start with first), and be a person who can communicate well with the parties involved, and if needed can testify confidently to defend the appropriateness of the investigation.

Next week, I will be discussing more of the particulars of how to conduct the investigation, examples of appropriate questions, and how to document the results.

Yes, it is only April, but even if employers updated their handbooks at the beginning of 2016, they should take another look at the handbooks to ensure they comply with new regulations issued by California’s Fair Employment and Housing Council.  The new regulations under the Fair Employment and Housing Act are effective April 1, 2016.  While the regulations are a restatement of the current law, they set forth an additional requirement that employers adopt a written discrimination, harassment, and retaliation prevention policy that meet certain conditions.

The new regulations provide that employers “have an affirmative duty to create a workplace environment that is free from employment practices prohibited by the Act.”  The regulations set forth that in addition to providing employees the Department’s DFEH-185 brochure on sexual harassment, or an alternative writing that complies with Government Code section 12950, employers are required to develop a harassment, discrimination, and retaliation policy that meets certain requirements.

Recommended actions for employers:

  1. Update handbooks to ensure the harassment policy complies with the new regulations.
  2. Update handbook acknowledgments to obtain written acknowledgments from employees that they have received the new policy.
  3. Review the new hire packets provided to new employees to ensure it contains the brochure DFEH-185 and all other required documents (disclosures and policies required to be provided to employees is becoming very detailed and complicated to comply with).
  4. Ensure all companies with 50 or more employees are compliant with its obligation to provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to all managers/supervisors.

Please contact me if you have any questions about updating handbooks or new hire packets to comply with these regulations.

Employers need to review their compliance with California’s sexual harassment training requirements on a periodic basis.  When doing so, it is a good time to update policies and remind employees about the company’s policies on a routine basis – not just when a complaint is made.  This Friday’s Five provides reminders about sexual harassment training and dealing with complaints in the workplace:

1.      Employers with 50 or more employees must provide sexual harassment training to all supervisors every two years.

Employers with 50 or more employees must provide at least two hours of classroom or other effective interactive training and education regarding sexual harassment to all supervisory employees who are employed as of July 1, 2005, and to all new supervisory employees within six months of assuming a supervisory position.  From, all covered employers must provide sexual harassment training and education to each supervisory employee once every two years.  In 2015, California requires that a portion of the training also address “abusive conduct.”

2.      It is recommended that employers provide training to all employees.

All employees should be training about the company’s anti-harassment policy and seriousness of violations of the sexual harassment policy.  Rank and file employees should be encouraged to report any harassment or inappropriate conduct that they see occur in the workplace even though it may not be directed at them.  Encourage employees to help other employees to speak up and make the company aware of inappropriate conduct so that the company can take effective measures to stop the conduct.

3.      Employers should have a compliant policy and complaint procedure.

All employers should have an anti-harassment policy of their own developed and distributed to all employees.  In addition, employers are required to distribute the pamphlet, Sexual Harassment Is Forbidden by Law (DFEH-185), to all employees.  Employers should also routinely discuss the sexual harassment policy with employees at meetings and remind them of the complaint procedures and document these additional steps.  This additional training will show that the company is serious about preventing harassment and took affirmative steps to protect its employees.

4.      Investigate all complaints.

Employers are liable for harassment when it knows or should have known that harassment has occurred.  Therefore, employers should take immediate and appropriate action when they become aware of any potential harassment taking place in their workplace.  An employer must take effective action to stop any further harassment and to minimize any effects of the harassment. The investigation should fully inform complainant of his/her rights.  In addition, the investigation must be immediate, thorough, objective and complete.  All witnesses and anyone with information on the matter should be interviewed.  A final determination must be made and the results communicated to the complainant, to the alleged harasser, and, as appropriate, to all others who have a need to know.

If the investigation determines that harassment occurred, the company must take prompt and effective remedial action.  These steps would include taking appropriate action against the harasser, and keep the complainant informed of these steps.  In addition, the employer must take steps to prevent further harassment.

5.      Protect employees who complain against retaliation.

Employers must take steps to prevent retaliation against any employee who complains about harassment.  This even applies if the employer determines that the complaint was unfounded, the fact that a complaint was made is a protected activity.  Employers should remind the complainant of the anti-retaliation policy and have the employee report any perceived retaliation to the appropriate person in the company.  In addition, the employer should remind the person against who the complaint was made that there cannot be any retaliation against the complainant.  The employer may consider separating the two people involved in the situation to avoid any retaliation claims.

 

The laws passed in 2014 added some new posting requirements and resulted in the need to
revise some of the notices California employers are required to provide to employees. This Friday’s Five Best Practices article sets out five items California employers should review before the start of 2015:

1. Review newly published frequently asked questions about California’s new paid sick leave law (AB 1522).
The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) published a much awaited frequently asked questions on its website explaining how it interprets the new paid sick leave law taking effect in 2015 (click here to view the FAQ’s). Employers should review the questions and answers to have a full understanding their expectations under the new law. As a reminder, this law applies to every employer in California, even if the employer only has one employee.

2. Post the new paid sick leave poster.
As previous written about, the DLSE published the required poster employers must post in a conspicuous place for employees to see. This should be posted by January 1, 2015. Here is a link to download a PDF version of the poster: http://elr.io/pdfsickleaveposter

3. Start using updated Notice to Employee by at least January 1, 2015.
Also written about previously, employers must start using the new Notice to Employee on January 1, 2015. See my previous post for a discussion about how the notice has been revised. Here is a link to download a PDF version of the revised Notice to Employee: http://elr.io/noticetoemployee12-2014

4. Obtain and provide updated sexual harassment pamphlet to new hires.
The DFEH will be releasing revised pamphlets (Sexual Harassment: The facts about sexual harassment DFEH-185) employers are required to provide to new hires. Ensure you company obtains the revised pamphlets and provides the updated pamphlets to new hires.

5. Obtain and provide updated Discrimination and Harassment poster.
Like the sexual harassment pamphlet, the DFEH will be revising the poster entitled “California Law Prohibits Workplace Discrimination and Harassment” (DFEH -162). Employers are required to post this poster in the workplace. This revised noticed should be published by the DFEH within the next week or two, but as of December 5, 2014 the DFEH’s website does not contain the new poster. The poster will reflect the changes in California law that expanded protection against harassment to unpaid interns and volunteers. Click here for a list of the DFEH pamphlets and posters that are available for download. Presumably, once the revised materials are created by the DFEH they will be posted at the DFEH’s website as well.

Next week, I’ll discuss some other areas that employers should review as part of a yearly audit of their employment and wage and hour issues.

1. Have a good anti-harassment policy and conduct required training for supervisors.

It is legally required that all California employers provide information to employees regarding harassment. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing provides the following guidelines for employers:

Employers must help ensure a workplace free from sexual harassment by distributing to employees information on sexual harassment. An employer may either distribute a brochure that may be obtained from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing or develop an equivalent document, which must meet the following requirements:
• The illegality of sexual harassment
• The definition of sexual harassment under state and federal laws
• A description of sexual harassment, utilizing examples
• The internal complaint process of the employer available to the employee
• The legal remedies and complaint process available through the Department and the Fair Employment and Housing Commission
• Directions on how to contact the Department and the Fair Employment and Housing Commission
• The protection against retaliation for opposing the practices prohibited by law or for filing a complaint with, or otherwise participating in investigative activities conducted by, the Department or the Commission

Also, since 2005, California employers with more than 50 employees must provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to supervisors and managers within six months of hire or promotion, and every two years after that. Completion of the training should be documented in the supervisor’s personnel file.

2. Have a good internal complaint procedure.

Don’t just use some boilerplate in an employee handbook – really think this through. Who should the employees complain to and what different avenues can the company set up to have them complain? This is key in using a defense recognized in California – the avoidable consequences doctrine. This defense was just reaffirmed by a California appellate court and it could limit the damages the plaintiff could receive if they don’t complain under the employer’s complaint procedure.

3. Treat all complaints seriously and perform proper investigations.

It is recommended to have someone who is well-versed in sexual harassment investigations and the law to conduct the investigation. I also recommend that two people be involved in the investigation, this allows one person to ask questions and observe the witnesses’ credibility and the other person to focus on taking notes and documenting the interviews. A good overview of how to conduct an investigation is published at the EEOC’s website here: http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/harassment.html.

4. Investigate complaints immediately.

The longer it takes for a company to start an investigation, the more open the company will be to claims that it did not treat complaints of harassment seriously. Also, the sooner you speak with witnesses and obtain statements, the better everyone’s memory of the events will be.

5. Prevent any form of retaliation from occurring.

Even if you conclude that no harassment took place, but the employee is retaliated against by the manager for making a complaint, the employee would still have a retaliation claim.

Q:  Is it "Illegal" to work with a relative as your co-worker or supervisor, or is it left up to the facility/business to make rules regarding how/who they hire as their employees?

There is nothing in California law that prohibits family members from working together. However, many companies institute non-fraternization or anti-nepotism policies as a safety measure to prevent work-place disputes that boil over from non-work relationships as well as to avoid claims of sexual harassment or discrimination. In fact, it is advisable for companies to have such policies.

One of the most problematic areas that arises is when two employees are dating, but the relationship goes sour. As you can imagine, this creates an awkward working environment that will take away from the employees’ productivity, in addition to exposing the company to a sexual harassment claim if one of the employees continues to pursue the other while at work. Also, if the relationship was between a supervisor and a subordinate, the company faces liability if the supervisor favors the person he/she is having the relationship with over other employees when making decisions about bonuses or promotions.

To avoid this problem, many companies have policies in place the either prohibit relationships at work, or some companies require the employees to disclose the relationship. Then the company can work with the employees to see if moving one or both employees to different divisions and/or locations within the company could prevent any potential problems should the relationship not workout in the future. Employers have to walk a fine-line however, because employees have an expectation of privacy about their personal lives while away from work, so employers cannot have too evasive policies. It is best to have a knowledge CA employment lawyer review the policy in advance.