On January 13, 2014, the California Court of Appeal decided in Taylor v. Nabors Drilling USA, L.P., 222 Cal. App. 4th 1228 (2014), that a person may maintain an action for sexual harassment when subjected to verbal attacks on his or her heterosexual identity, regardless of whether the attacks were motivated by sexual desire. This ruling came soon after the implementation of SB 292, which became effective in California on January 1, 2014. This bill revised the definition of sexual harassment under California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) to specify that sexually harassing conduct “need not be motivated by sexual desire.” As a result, to prove harassment “because of sex,” plaintiffs need only show that there was evidence that gender was a substantial factor in the harassment.
Both Taylor and SB 292 explicitly reject the view adopted by the California Court of Appeal in Kelley v. Conco Companies, 196 Cal. App. 4th 191 (2011), which held that a plaintiff failed to prove sexual intent because there was no evidence that heterosexual harassers sexually desired the male plaintiff. The court made this decision despite the fact that the defendant and coworkers in Kelley used “graphic, vulgar, and sexually explicit” language to express sexual interest and solicit sexual activity from the plaintiff.
Taylor and SB 292 resolve any ambiguity created by the Kelley decision, and make clear that a showing of sexual desire is not an essential element of a claim of sexual harassment—thereby affirming and solidifying California authority published before Kelley. Thus, it is clear that a plaintiff may establish an inference that an alleged harasser’s conduct is sexual by producing: (1) evidence of the alleged harasser’s sexual desire; (2) evidence that the alleged harasser is motivated by general hostility towards the particular gender of which plaintiff is a member; or (3) comparative evidence about how the alleged harasser treated members of both sexes in a mixed-sex workplace.
These developments in California sexual harassment law have important consequences for employers. To avoid a greater occurrence of suits, employers must now scrutinize offensive comments by same-sex employees objectively, based on the content of the remarks, not the intent of the speaker. Employers can minimize liability through adequate complaint protocols, instituting zero tolerance policies, and encouraging employees to report any inappropriate workplace behaviors. These actions may prevent alleged harassing conduct from being deemed sufficiently severe or pervasive. Employers should also stress that bullying, such as the use of homophobic epithets to heterosexual employees (Taylor), subjects the employer to liability. Accordingly, employers should update their policies and handbooks to reflect the change, as well as provide employees relevant information and a copy of the updated policy. Lastly, employers may consider additional training for supervisors or issuing a memo, advising them of SB 292 and their responsibilities to administer policies in conformity with the new law.