In September 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed a series of bills aimed at drastically reshaping California’s approach to claims of discrimination and harassment amidst the “#MeToo” Movement. Among the legislation is Senate Bill 1300 which clarifies and expands employee rights under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). SB 1300, which was met with both opposition and support, became effective January 1, 2019. In addition to Senate Bill 1300, Gov. Brown also signed into law a series of bills on issues relating to workplace harassment, gender equality and human trafficking.
CALIFORNIA SENATE BILL 1300: HEIGHTENED EXPOSURE FOR EMPLOYERS
SB 1300 intends to close loopholes in the law that discourage or prevent victims from speaking out, and allow employers to avoid sexual harassment and discrimination laws and leave employees vulnerable to sexual harassment at work. In an attempt to aid these efforts, SB 1300 provides the following enhancements, further described below: 1) a new “single occurrence” standard for sexual harassment cases; 2) increases the challenges of recovering litigation costs for defendants; 3) potentially holds employers liable for third-party harassment; 4) prohibits release of both claims and non-disparagement agreements; and 5) provides for workplace accommodation and bystander training.
“SINGLE OCCURRENCE” STANDARD
One highly significant implication of SB 1300 is that it now makes a single instance of sexually harassing conduct a potentially triable sexual harassment claim by statute. Under FEHA, action was required to be so “severe or pervasive” so as to create a hostile work environment before it was actionable. However, the term “severe or pervasive” was subjective, leaving room for interpretation as to what conduct would be significantly severe or pervasive to support a claim under the existing law. For example, in Brooks v. City of San Mateo, 229 F.3d 917 (9th Cir. 2000), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that an employee touching another employee’s chest under her sweater was not significant enough to rise to the level of “severe or pervasive,” and, thus, granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.
SB 1300 narrows the definition of “severe or pervasive” by clarifying that a single incident of harassing conduct is sufficient to create a triable issue, so long as the conduct limited the employee’s work performance or created a hostile work environment. The Legislation specifically rejects the court’s holding in Brooks and states that the case opinion shall not be used in determining what kind of conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a violation of the FEHA.
Of significance to litigation resulting from employment claims, SB 1300 affirms the court’s opinion in Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc. (2009) 178 Cal.App.4th 243. In Nazir, the Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against his former employer, United Airlines, and his former supervisor (“Defendants”). Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment/summary adjudication, seeking adjudication of 44 issues. The appellate court found that hostile work environment cases involve issues that are “not determinable on paper.” SB 1300’s reference to the finding in the Nazir case that employment issues are too complex for motions for summary judgment may be a threat to the validity of future motions for summary judgment in employment law cases which has been a common and successful defense tactic.