SAN FRANCISCO — A state appeals court on Thursday limited the defenses available to California employers whose managers are accused of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The decision, if ultimately approved by the California Supreme Court, has broad ramifications for discrimination suits filed under state civil rights laws. The decision, which is the first of its kind, could expose California companies to damages even if they promptly tried to rectify the alleged harassment.
The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento said companies are not immune from such lawsuits even if they immediately take steps to end the harassment.
That ruling conflicts with a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said companies could be shielded from paying damages in federal civil rights suits if, among other things, they took prompt corrective action. The U.S. Supreme Court also said companies could be immune if an employee waits too long to report the allegations and if companies have programs to head off harassment.
The high court reasoned that companies should not be exposed to damages because of an employee’s malfeasance as long as the company has taken steps to try to eliminate harassment.
Legal experts were awaiting the ruling because California and federal employment discrimination laws are similar.
The case decided Thursday involved a woman who worked for the state Department of Health Services. She claimed her boss harassed her sexually for two years before she reported the allegations.
The state said it was shielded from the suit because it provided sexual harassment training to its workers and the victim waited too long to make a claim. In addition, the harasser resigned after disciplinary action was taken.
The three-judge appeals panel, in rejecting the state’s challenge, noted that California’s workplace discrimination laws are designed to strongly discourage companies from allowing sexual harassment.
The case is Department of Health Services v. Superior Court, C034163.