FEHA law ups out-of-court harrassment fines

As of Jan. 1, employees who pursue sexual harassment claims within the state of California can seek emotional distress damages up to $ 50,000 from their employer– without going to court.

This new legislation now allows the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to impose even greater fines against companies. Before this year, the state agency had only been able to seek an employee’s lost wages and benefits.

“Prior to this law, people had to file a suit in court in order to get distress damages,” noted Michael A. Robbins, a labor attorney with Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman.

This new legislation comes in the wake of a dramatic increase in the number of sexual harassment cases being reported, to both FEHA and to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Since Anita Hill testified at the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, the EEOC has seen its sexual harassment case load increase by 45%.

“I think that people around the country have become more aware of and sensitive to sexual harassment since Anita Hill’s testimony,” Robbins noted, “but it’s still going on.

“In the entertainment industry, I think there always was the perception that it happened but that it was part of the business … that people just had to put up with it,” Robbins said. “And now they’re realizing they don’t have to put up with it.”

Robbins, who has seen his own practice overrun with harassment suits, is a defense attorney — he represents firms hit with these suits.

His best advice to these companies is to first draw up in-house policy outlining procedures to address these problems.

It’s especially important for smaller companies, such as independent production houses, where much of the work force may be considered temporary or independent contractors.

“Let’s say a company is out on a location shoot, and the below-the-line employees are being harassed by the guy who runs the lunch wagon,” Robbins said. “In some circumstances, the company can be held responsible in a court of law, given that it knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate remedial action.”

And it’s not a good solution to remove the harassed person with the argument that the harasser is a high-placed valuable employee, Robbins said.

“I’ve had companies tell me that the harasser is extremely valuable to the business,” Robbins said, “but across the board, they usually follow my advice, which has resulted in the person being terminated.”

Robbins said increased awareness of the problem will only go so far in stopping people from doing it.

“Companies continue to take more preventative steps, but ultimately it will take high-profile cases, like the Geffen suit, to cause people to really take notice,” he said.

In 1991, a former assistant at the David Geffen Co. filed a multimillion-dollar suit against the company, charging that the company’s inaction led to continuous physical and verbal sexual abuse from a former general manager.

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