FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT SEXUAL
HARASSMENT LAW IN CALIFORNIA
1. What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment under California and Federal law is generally defined
as unwanted sexual contact of two main types: (a) quid pro quo
harassment which occurs when employment is conditioned on the
submission to unwelcome sexual advances, or (b) unwelcomed sexual
conduct that was severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive
environment for the employee.
2. Who can sue for sexual harassment in the work place?
Any person who works for any company can sue for sexual harassment.
3. Does the sexual harassment have to be perpetrated by a
member of the opposite sex?
No. Both male and female employees are protected by California sexual
harassment laws and are protected from sexual harassment by a member
of the same sex even if the perpetrator and/or the victim are not
4. Does there need to be actual touching for sexual harassment to
No. Sexual harassment has been found to include a large range of
inappropriate behavior including requests for sexual favors, unwanted
sexual advances or propositions, verbal conduct, slurs or derogatory
comments and comments about a person's body, appearance or sexual
In fact, visual harassment, including leering looks, offensive gestures or
derogatory posters, cartoons or drawings have been found sufficient to
create a hostile environment.
5. Are sexual harassment cases limited to the work place?
No. The most frequent type of sexual harassment case arise out of an
employment relationship; however, California has passed a special law
which prohibits sexual harassment in a very wide range of business,
service or professional relationships. California Civil Code section 51.9
lays out the relationships covered.
6. Does the sexual harassment have to be directed at me and how
bad does it have to be for me to win my case?
Under California law, if sexual harassment permeates an employee's work
environment, they may have a claim even if the harassing conduct is not
directed at the employee personally, but occurs in the employee's
However, whether the harassment is directed at the employee or
someone else, for the plaintiff to be able to recover, they must establish
that the harassment was severe or pervasive. The court will look at the
frequency of the conduct; the severity of the conduct; whether the
conduct was physically threatening, humiliating or was a mere offensive
utterance; and whether the conduct reasonably interfered with the
employee's work performance. The courts will generally hold that any
sexual touching passes the severe standard.
7. Can I win a sexual harassment case if it is only my word against
Yes. Plaintiffs frequently prevail in "he said/she said" cases if the plaintiff
is more credible than the perpetrator, although it does help if there are
other witnesses to the sexual harassment or evidence that the perpetrator
harassed other employees.
8. I'm scared to report the harassment because I fear that I will be
retaliated against or fired. What should I do?
Don't worry. The California law protections against retaliation for reporting
sexual harassment are even stronger than the laws that prevent the
harassment from occurring. The law strictly prohibits an employer from
retaliating against anyone who has opposed practices of sexual
harassment and/or discrimination or has filed a complaint, testified or
assisted in any proceeding involving sexual harassment. If the employer
retaliates, the employee has yet another cause of action to sue the
employer and there has been a recent trend in California cases for
employees to receive larger verdicts for the retaliatory conduct of the
employer than for the original sexual harassment.
9. What do I need to do to protect my rights if I have been sexually
Generally it is wise to seek the advice of an attorney immediately. If you
want to try to work it out within your company first, you should consult your
employee handbook and procedure manual to learn of the appropriate
way to report sexual harassment within your company. If there is no
manual, and the company has a human resource department, it is
generally wise to report the harassment to human resources, if the
company has a human resource department.
Any report of the sexual harassment to the company should be in writing,
detailing all of the acts.
An employee can bring a sexual harassment claim against a company
while they are still working for the company. Before bringing a lawsuit, the
employee must first file a claim with the Department of Fair Employment
and Housing (DFEH) or with the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission (EEOC). The employee then has a choice of allowing the
administrative agency to investigate or immediately obtain a right to sue
Because the statute of limitations in sexual harassment cases is not very
clearly defined, an employee should move quickly to find an attorney once
they feel there has been sexual harassment. It is important that the
administrative claims are filled out properly and an attorney can help in
10. Will my case have to go to trial?
Probably not. Over 90% of sexual harassment cases are settled prior to
trial and a significant number are settled without litigation.