Clarifying the law of sexual harassment in the workplace, the California Supreme Court decided today that a supervisor who engages in consensual sexual affairs with subordinates and favors them with unmerited promotions may be successfully sued by other workers.
In a unanimous decision, the state high court held that a worker can be a victim of sexual harassment even if the boss never asked for sexual favors or made inappropriate advances.
"Even in the absence of coercive behavior, certain conduct creates a work atmosphere so demeaning to women that it constitutes an actionable hostile work environment," Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the court.
A spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer called the ruling "unique."
"What the decision means for employers now is that merely having a nepotism or an anti-nepotism policy in place is not enough to protect yourself from liability, said spokesman Nathan Barankin. "This is new, and it is big, potentially."
The ruling overturned two lower court decisions that had thrown out a lawsuit brought by female employees of the state Department of Corrections. In their lawsuit, the women charged that a prison warden had shown job favoritism toward three women with whom he was having affairs.
"Widespread favoritism based upon consensual sexual affairs may imbue the workplace with an atmosphere that is demeaning to women because a message is conveyed that managers view women as 'sexual playthings,'" George wrote.
In such a situation, other employees may believe "that the way required to secure advancement is to engage in sexual conduct with managers," he added.
Lawyers for California employers had argued that office romances are common, and that a ruling against the Department of Corrections would unfairly require employers to police them.
But the court said an employer would not be vulnerable for a manager's sexual favoritism unless it were widespread.
"An isolated instance of favoritism on the part of a supervisor toward a female employee with whom the supervisor is conducting a consensual sexual affair ordinarily would not constitute sexual harassment," George wrote.
A lower court had ruled against the women, saying they "were not themselves subjected to sexual advances and were not treated any differently than male employees."
The women who complained suffered retaliation, according to the opinion, which called it "an outrageous campaign of harassment against the plaintiffs."
The case was filed by former employees at the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla against then-warden Lewis Kuykendall.