California Supreme Court Places Responsibility for Sexual Harassment Squarely with School District That Knew or Should Have Known That Its Employee Would Sexually Harass a Student

Although this is not an employment case, C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School District, 53 Cal.4th 861 (March 8, 2012) is a sexual harassment case, and as such, important to employees, employers and employment lawyers.

School districts, like employers, have – under some circumstances – avoided legal responsibility for sexual harassment. Courts have declared that the school district and employer may not be liable for the sexual assault/harassment because the sexual harassment is outside the course and scope of the employee’s job duties. See, for example, John R. v. Oakland Unified School District (1989) 48 Cal. 3rd 438.

In this case, the California Supreme Court clarifies that a school district cannot escape liability for sexual harassment where its personnel knew or should have known of the employee’s misconduct and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it. This ruling is very important to protecting girls (and boys) from sexual harassment in schools.

Employment law in California has a similar standard. An employer is responsible for sexual harassment by its managers and supervisors. See, Kelly-Zurian v. Wohl Shoe Co. (1994) 22 Cal.App.4th 397 (“harassment by a supervisor is unlawful regardless of whether the employer knows or should have known”). An employer is also responsible for the sexual harassment by a co-worker if – as is the case above – the employer knew or should have known of the misconduct of the co-worker. Here – as in C.A. v. William S. Hart School District – liability attaches because the employer and/or school district fails to properly hire or supervise, and improperly retained this employee.

This type of accountability makes the world – both schools and workplaces – a better place.

Jody I. LeWitter
May 30, 2012