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Hostile Work Environment in California: Definition & Defenses

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Attorney Mo Eldessouky

Justice and the Compensation Your Deserve in a Hostile Workplace Case

In California, a hostile work environment is created when an employer or co-worker engages in behavior that impairs a worker’s ability to perform his or her job. A hostile work environment can be created by behaviors that are direct or indirect. Armed with this basic, general definition of a hostile workplace, a further discussion aids in bringing a better understanding of this type of employment-related malfeasance.

To prove that a work environment is a “hostile work environment” a strong understanding of California FEHA law is required. Simply feeling that you are in a hostile work environment is not enough to determine whether or not there are legal charges you can claim.

Being uncomfortable or stressed at work simply isn’t enough.

However, if the stress is caused by mistreatment at work because of you being a member of a protected class, this may be actionable.

IMPORTANT: Given the wide discrepancy within the employment laws of California, the best way to figure out whether or not you are being unfairly treated is to speak to an employment attorney.

If you believe you are being mistreated or discriminated against because of your sex, religion, disability, medical condition, national origin, sexual orientation, or speaking up against certain working conditions, you may have legal action you can take against the finding of a hostile work environment.

Under FEHA, it is unlawful to harass an employee because of their age, physical disability, mental disability, age, or any of the other characteristics identified under the statute. (Govt. Code § 12940(j)(l).) To state a claim for a hostile work environment under FEHA, a plaintiff must allege facts demonstrating that (1) he or she is a member of a protected class, (2) he or she was subjected to unwelcome acts, comments, or physical conduct because of the protected characteristic, (3) such conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and to create an objectively abusive environment, (4) he or she perceived the conduct abusive, (5) that he or she exhausted their administrative remedies, and (6) that the defendant is liable under the principles of respondeat superior.  (Id.; Lyle v. Warner Bros. Television Productions (2006) 38 Cal.4th 264, 279.)

Protected Classes and a Hostile Work Environment

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964), prohibits discrimination in the workplace associated with what legally is known as an employee’s protected class. Behaviors that constitute legal hostility in the workplace include harassment or discrimination associated with a victim’s protected class including:

  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Orientation
  • Nationality
  • Disability/Handicap
  • Being part of any other legally protected status

Impact a Hostile Workplace can Have on an Employee

  • Lack of motivation
  • A decline in work performance
  • Decreased productivity or open
  • Lack of attention to details
  • Lowered self-confidence or self-esteem
  • Health problems, including physical, mental, and emotional conditions or issues

Have you ever experienced any of these while on the job? Abuse and harassment take their toll on the human body in so many ways. When in a hostile work environment, it is important that you understand that there are rights to protect you from continuing in this manner.

The negative impact of a hostile work environment can be profound, pervasive, and long-enduring. An employee in a hostile work environment may begin to experience a decrease in productivity or a decrease in output. In the long term, it can hamper an employee’s chances of gaining a promotion or receiving a raise, as there is less visibility on the employee’s production and growth. This hostile environment inhibits employee growth, as he or she cannot get ahead, but rather is burdened by this emotional weight.

Your colleagues and coworkers may also be considered victims of a hostile work environment. Even if the abuse is not directly aimed at them, they are witnesses to the harassment. If their performance or health begins to decline, then they too are affected. This is one of the ways you can corroborate your claims of a hostile work environment, is by gathering the accounts of your fellow employees.

Dealing with an Employment Dispute?

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or, give us a ring at 714-409-8991.

Variations on a Theme: Different Types of Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is not always straightforward, as there are many different ways the behaviors can occur. As we had previously discussed, comments or remarks based on a legally protected status, gender, religion, race, and so forth are common identifiers. Let’s explore further the individual types of cases.

Harassment can take place in forms such as:

  • Direct harassment from a colleague or supervisor
  • Behaviors from a colleague or supervisor that were harassing to the victim
  • Sexual harassment or sexual favoritism committed by a colleague or supervisor
  • Being a witness to harassment directed at other coworkers or colleagues

When Is a Workplace Situation Not Considered Hostile Work Environment in California?

If you were to claim that you were unhappy at work or that the workplace was mostly unpleasant, this might not hold enough substance to warrant a hostile workplace complaint. It would not be enough to say that you were not given enough perks, that the amenities were insufficient, or that you did not get along with your coworker.

Unfortunately, many employees suffer on a day-to-day basis from feeling underappreciated for their work. They may feel as if they are underpaid for the type of work they are doing, undervalued, or not receiving the recognition they deserve.

It is important to bear in mind that, and as discussed a moment ago, a hostile work environment is one in which a worker is discriminated against or harassed because of an issue arising from a protected status. The work environment ultimately becomes such that it is impossible for an employee to perform his or her job.

Should You File a Hostile Work Environment Claim?

Remember that you are not alone in this battle, even when you have exhausted all options. If you have tried confronting the harasser and they continue to behave this way towards you, speak with your human resources team regarding harassment and abusive practices in the workplace. In good faith, your employer should take every measure possible to protect you as an employee. With diligence, the employer should be monitoring the employee’s behavior, with explanations that their actions are inappropriate and cannot continue. Many times, that employee will discontinue the behavior after this.

However, in cases where your pleas to your employer fall on deaf ears, or worse, there is an outright denial of or refusal to take cautions or preventative action, it may be time to consider filing a lawsuit.

These are the first steps to take:

  1. Talk with your employment lawyer about your case. Your lawyer can explain your rights in full detail and advise on how best to proceed.
  2. Your lawyer will file a charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, in order to gain the “right to sue” for a hostile work environment. Note that this step is required prior to filing the lawsuit.
  3. Your claims must include all of the legal requirements: that the behavior was created by your supervisor or a coworker and continued without any prevention or addressing the problem, the harassment was so severe that it prevented you from completing your job duties, or that discrimination was involved.

Legally, an employer cannot retaliate against you for taking a stand to protect yourself or reporting inappropriate or harassment in the workplace. It is important to note, though, that if you did not approach the human resources team or manager, noting the harassing behavior, your claim may not hold as much weight. This is because your employer did not have the chance to address the issue with that employee and correct the situation.

Is There a Time Limit to Filing a Hostile Work Environment Lawsuit in California?

Many legal cases have a deadline to move matters along, which is known as the “statute of limitations.” If you recall, the Department of Fair & Employment Housing reviews these cases before you can bring forth a lawsuit. You must submit your claim within one year of the harassment or discrimination at work. Following this, once you have been given the green light, and your attorney has received the “right to sue” letter, you must file your court case within one year from the date the letter was issued.

As with any legal matter, it is important that you act quickly. Many facets of the case could require quick responses. You might also be dealing with several other aspects of the law, including federal laws, which may have different timelines involved.

When it comes to satisfying the requirements associated with pursuing a hostile work environment claim, consulting with an experienced employment law lawyer like a member of the legal team at Eldessouky Law can be crucial. You can connect with an employment law attorney from our firm by calling us at (714) 409-8991.

Possible Financial Compensation in a Hostile Work Environment Case

The facts and circumstances of a particular case determine the nature and extent of compensation available in a successful hostile work environment case. Examples of compensation routinely awarded in a hostile work environment case include:

  • Compensation for salary lost due to job loss
  • Compensation for being paid unfairly or for lack of promotion
  • Compensation for retirement funds lost
  • Any costs associated with pain and suffering
  • Punishment against the employer, also known as punitive damages
  • Assistance with attorney fees

Protecting Your Legal Interests in a Hostile Work Environment Case

You need to be as proactive as possible when it comes to protecting your legal interests in a hostile work environment case. This includes scheduling an initial consultation with an experienced hostile work environment lawyer on the Eldessouky Law legal team. You can connect with our dedicated, tenacious California employment lawyers right now by calling our firm at (714) 409-8991.

There is no charge for an initial consultation and case evaluation with a hostile workplace lawyer at Eldessouky Law. We never charge a fee unless we win your case.

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