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If you’ve experienced a hostile work environment, you know how damaging it can be to your mental and emotional health. Understanding your rights under California law can help you take the necessary steps to seek justice. Here’s what you need to know about proving a hostile work environment claim.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment occurs when an employee is subjected to discriminatory harassment that is severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive working atmosphere. This harassment can be based on various protected characteristics, such as race, gender, age, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. It’s important to note that occasional teasing or isolated incidents, unless extremely serious, do not typically qualify as a hostile work environment. The behavior must be so frequent or severe that it interferes with the employee’s ability to perform their job.

How Do You Prove a Hostile Work Environment?

Proving a hostile work environment claim involves demonstrating several key elements:

Protected Characteristic: You must show that you are a member of a protected class under California law. This includes race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age (40 and older), disability, and more.

Unwelcome Conduct: The behavior in question must be unwelcome. This means that you did not invite or accept the harassment, and you found it offensive or undesirable.

Severe or Pervasive Conduct: The conduct must be either severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. This can include actions such as verbal harassment, physical threats, or unwelcome physical contact.

Affect on Work Performance: The hostile behavior must significantly interfere with your work performance or create an intimidating or abusive work environment. This can be shown through evidence that the harassment made it difficult for you to do your job effectively.

Employer Liability: You must show that your employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take appropriate corrective action. This can involve demonstrating that you reported the harassment and your employer did not address it adequately.

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The Court of Appeal of the State of California Second Appellate District found an arbitration agreement between the University of Southern California (USC) and its employee (plaintiff) to be unconscionable. The employee filed a lawsuit against USC and two coworkers, alleging discrimination and harassment. USC sought to compel arbitration based on an agreement the employee signed as a condition of her employment. The trial court denied this motion, ruling that the agreement was unconscionable and could not be severed. USC appealed the decision, but the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s findings.

The case underscores the importance of having a skilled attorney when dealing with arbitration agreements. These agreements often contain complex and sometimes unfair terms that can heavily favor the employer. Without legal assistance, employees might unknowingly waive their rights to pursue specific claims in court, as seen in this case.

The Difference Between Procedural and Substantive Unconscionability

The Los Angeles County Superior Court’s decision to deny USC’s motion to compel arbitration highlights key aspects of procedural and substantive unconscionability under California law. Procedural unconscionability occurs when an agreement is presented as a contract of adhesion, meaning it is offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis with no opportunity for negotiation. In the case involving USC, the arbitration agreement was forced upon the employee as a mandatory condition of employment, illustrating a classic example of procedural unconscionability.

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For individuals in California or elsewhere who believe they have been victims of sexual harassment or discrimination, pursuing these claims against a large multinational corporation can be a daunting task. A California woman recently sought relief from the California Court of Appeals to proceed with her claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation based on the conduct of the employer and management while she worked with the defendant.

The Alleged Harassment and Discrimination

According to the facts discussed in the recently published opinion, the appellant was a senior marketing manager for the defendant company. She alleges she faced sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation starting in 2012. Her initial supervisor made her uncomfortable by following her around the office. Later, while working internationally, her new supervisors engaged in unwanted sexual conduct, creating a hostile work environment, and unfairly targeted her by gathering personal information and reprimanding her. After raising compliance issues, she claims these supervisors retaliated by restricting her budget, ridiculing her, and sabotaging her job opportunities. Following her termination at the end of 2018, she sued the company and her supervisors for discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, labor code violations, and negligent hiring and supervision.

The Discovery Dispute and Attorney-Client Privilege

After filing her lawsuit, the appellant requested evidence from her employer related to internal investigations into her claims that were performed by an attorney hired by the defendant company to evaluate the claims. The company rejected her request, citing attorney-client privilege in refusing to turn over the documents. The trial court agreed with the company and prevented the woman from obtaining the evidence, seriously hampering her case. The woman appealed the ruling to the California Court of Appeals, arguing that the challenged documents were not protected by attorney-client privilege.

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California and federal law protect the rights of employees from unlawful termination, which may include termination upon the basis of a mental health problem suffered by the employee. Employees are required to request reasonable accommodation for their illness in order to benefit from all of the legal protections available, however, employers may still terminate an employee after accommodations have been requested under some circumstances. The California Court of Appeals recently addressed an appeal to a rejected discrimination claim that had been pursued by a dentist against her former employer.

According to the facts discussed in the recently published appellate opinion, the defendant hired the plaintiff as a full-time dentist but she was later terminated. Nearly two years after her termination, the plaintiff sued the former employer alleging several causes of action. The complaint detailed that the plaintiff had previously sued another company for wrongful termination and retaliation. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant began a covert harassment campaign to interfere with her lawsuit against the other company. As a result of the stress from the alleged harassment, she began seeing a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with delusional disorder. Her accommodation request due to her disability was ultimately denied, and her employment was terminated. The defendant cited performance and behavioral issues as reasons for the termination, countering the plaintiff’s claim of pretext.

After discovery was complete, the employer asked the court to resolve the case without trial. The plaintiff represented herself without an attorney and opposed the summary disposition, but failed to present admissible evidence. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, finding no triable issues. The plaintiff’s subsequent motion for reconsideration was denied, and she filed a notice of appeal in March 2023.

In California, a pioneering ‘Right to Disconnect’ bill, AB 2751, seeks to shield employees from the increasingly prevalent expectation of perpetual availability to their employers. This legislative proposal mandates that employers clearly define work hours and prohibits employees from responding to work-related communications, such as emails, phone calls, or instant messages, outside these designated times, except in emergencies or for essential scheduling adjustments. As the first of its kind in the United States, the bill aims to foster a healthier work-life balance and reduce burnout among workers.

However, it’s important to note that the bill has not been without its challenges. It has faced significant opposition from business groups, who raise valid concerns about potential compliance complications, particularly in managing salaried employees. This resistance suggests that even if the bill is enacted, adherence might not be a straightforward process. Employees must be aware and ready to address potential violations of the law. In such situations, seeking advice from an employment rights attorney could be instrumental in ensuring their rights are protected under this new legislative framework.

Do Employees Need to Respond to Work Communications After Hours?

Employment lawyers report a growing concern among workers about the increasingly blurred boundaries between work and personal time. This issue has intensified with the rise of telework and work-from-home arrangements, which refer to situations where employees work remotely, often using technology to stay connected to their workplace. While these flexible working conditions offer reduced commuting times and enhanced work-life balance, they complicate the distinction between professional and private spaces. As a result, employees often respond to work communications outside of traditional work hours, infringing on their personal time and even during periods meant for rest or sickness.

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The Federal Trade Commission has issued a transformative ruling that bans noncompete clauses nationwide. This significant move aims to boost competition and enhance innovation and empowers workers, including California employees, to explore new job opportunities without fearing legal repercussions. This rule marks a pivotal change for California employees, expanding their career possibilities and fostering a more dynamic job market. As the landscape of employment law shifts, it’s crucial for workers to seek legal guidance. Consulting with an attorney will help you understand the specific impacts of this ruling on your employment rights and ensure you can fully benefit from these new protections.

Are Noncompete Agreements Valid?

The Federal Trade Commission’s recent decision to ban noncompete agreements marks a significant shift in employment law across the United States. This new rule is aimed at fostering a more competitive job market and encouraging innovation by allowing workers the freedom to move between jobs or start new businesses without the restraint of a noncompete clause. Experts state that eliminating these clauses could boost the economy by creating over 8,500 new startups annually and lead to an overall wage increase for workers.

When navigating the complexities of the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) claims in California, having an experienced attorney by your side is imperative. The recent ruling by the California Supreme Court in Estrada v. Royalty Carpet Mills has significant implications for how these claims are handled in court, making it essential for both employees and employers to understand the changes and how they affect their legal strategies.

Background of Estrada v. Royalty Carpet Mills

In Estrada, employees brought forward a lawsuit alleging various wage and hour violations against their employer, Royalty Carpet Mills. This case included a claim under PAGA representing a collective action for civil penalties for the alleged violations. The controversy centered around whether the trial court could dismiss the PAGA claim due to its complexity and manageability concerns.

Understanding PAGA and the Supreme Court Ruling

The Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) allows California employees to file lawsuits for labor code violations for themselves and other employees. This act has been a powerful tool for addressing workplace issues. However, a key question arose: Can courts dismiss these claims if they are too complex or unmanageable?

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California employees facing challenges with sick leave may need to consult with a lawyer to navigate the complexities of new legislation and ensure their rights are protected. The recent enactment of Senate Bill (SB) 616, effective January 1, 2024, significantly alters the nature of paid sick leave (PSL) for workers across the state, demanding attention and understanding from employees and employers.

Understanding SB 616 and Its Impact

SB 616 broadens the scope of PSL, mandating that nearly all California employers provide a minimum of 40 hours or five days of paid sick leave, whichever is greater. This change aims to enhance employees’ well-being and financial security, ensuring they have adequate time to recover from illness without losing income. The bill applies to employees who have worked for the same employer for at least 30 days within a year in California, covering a wide range of workers, including part-time, per diem, in-home supportive services providers, and temporary employees, with few exceptions.

Accrual and Usage of Paid Sick Leave

The new legislation offers flexibility in how PSL can be accrued. Employers may opt to provide 1 hour of PSL for every 30 hours worked, front-load 40 hours or 5 days of PSL at the beginning of each 12-month period, or implement an alternative accrual method that meets specific requirements. This adaptability ensures that employees have access to sick leave in a manner that suits various employment models.

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In a recent case, the Second District Court of Appeals Division 8 in California issued an opinion in an appeal involving a termination dispute between an employer and an employee. The plaintiff is a former employee of the defendant, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (Cedars). The plaintiff contends that she was wrongfully terminated by Cedars based on disability discrimination and also made a claim under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). At trial, Cedars filed a motion for summary judgment, and the court issued a written order granting the motion.

Facts of the Case

Plaintiff began working for Cedars in 2000. Throughout her tenure, she worked in an administrative role with no patient care responsibilities. In 2007, the plaintiff was diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer. The treatment was effective to rid her of cancer but left her with lingering side effects. These included unspecified allergies, a weakened immune system, and neuropathy—damage to the nerves resulting in an ongoing “tingling sensation” in her fingers and toes. None of these side effects limited her ability to perform her job functions, and she successfully returned to work for Cedars in 2009.

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In a recent case, the Second District Court of Appeals Division 8 in California issued an opinion in an appeal involving a termination dispute between an employer and an employee. The plaintiff is a former employee of the defendant, St. Cecilia Catholic School. The plaintiff contends that she was wrongfully terminated by St. Cecilia for age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. At trial, St. Cecilia filed a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court issued an order granting the motion.

Facts of the Case

St. Cecilia is a Catholic elementary school in Los Angeles offering a faith-based education for children from kindergarten to eighth grade. The plaintiff was employed by St. Cecilia for roughly 40 years from 1978 to 2018. She began working at the school as a part-time secretary and office administrator. The plaintiff’s job duties included answering phones, filing, photocopying, maintaining records, processing registrations, parent communications, and ensuring that the office ran smoothly. She maintained that role until her termination at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year. In 1999, the plaintiff began working as a part-time art teacher at St. Cecilia in addition to her office administrative duties. As an art teacher, she taught studio art and art history to students and occasionally served as a substitute teacher for other subjects from time to time. Throughout her time as an employee, the plaintiff was the school’s only art teacher.

In 2017, a new, younger employee, was hired to work in the school office to do administrative tasks. The plaintiff trained the new employee. In the summer of 2018, a new principal arrived at St. Cecilia. The principal subsequently decided to eliminate the fine arts teaching position, eliminating the plaintiff’s role. They did not give the plaintiff an opportunity to return to administrative work in the front office. Following her termination, the plaintiff filed a suit contending that she was wrongfully terminated by St. Cecilia for age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. At trial, the trial court granted St. Cecilia summary judgment after St. Cecilia argued that the plaintiff’s claim for age discrimination was barred by the ministerial exception as undisputed evidence showed that in her role as an art teacher, she failed to fulfill her responsibility of educating her students in the Catholic faith.

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