Isolated Incidents of Allegedly Inappropriate Behavior Insufficient to Establish Sexual Harassment Claim

A California appellate court has upheld the trial court’s dismissal of a county employee’s sexual harassment claim. The court found that isolated, minor instances of alleged harassment were insufficient to sustain the worker’s claim. The case is Robinson v. County of Los Angeles, Calif. Ct. App., No. B317521 (Nov. 8, 2023).

The employee worked as a student professional worker in a county public defender’s office, performing clerical tasks. She claimed that her immediate supervisor made her uncomfortable, and she tried to avoid him because he frequently stared at her in a sexual manner. He also hugged her on one occasion when he shook the hands of two male employees and told her to stay off internet pornography sites while at work. The employee reported she was shocked and embarrassed by the supervisor’s behavior.

After leaving her job, the employee filed suit against the county under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), making several claims, including sexual harassment. FEHA prohibits discrimination based on sex or gender, which encompasses sexual harassment. To maintain a sexual harassment claim arising out of a hostile work environment, employees must prove that the alleged harassment unreasonably interfered with their work performance. This unreasonable interference with work performance must rise to the level that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment for the employee.

Furthermore, the conduct that constitutes the alleged sexual harassment must be sufficiently severe and pervasive to create a hostile work environment from the perspective of a reasonable person. The affected employee also must subjectively view the environment as hostile.

In this case, the employee’s evidence of alleged sexual harassment consisted of the supervisor leering at her in a sexual manner and two isolated instances involving an unwanted hug and a comment about accessing pornography online. The two isolated instances were not prolonged, intimidating, or threatening to the employee. The supervisor’s statement about the employee visiting porn sites, while vulgar, may be offensive but is not unlawful discrimination. The court found that this evidence was not severe or pervasive enough to adversely affect the conditions of her employment, as there was no indication that the incidents made it hard for the employee to do her job. Therefore, the court found that the supervisor did not create a hostile work environment to sustain a claim for sexual harassment in this case.

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