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Claim by Employee Fired After Sexual Harassment Allowed to Proceed

California sexual harassment claims must generally be filed within one year to meet the statute of limitations. However, when ongoing violations have occurred and form a continuous violation, earlier incidents may be relevant to a claim. In Blue Fountain Pools and Spas Inc. v. Superior Court, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. E074121, the court reviewed a case in which the victim had been subjected to sexual harassment at her workplace for 11 years to decide whether the continuing violation doctrine applied or if her claims were time-barred.[1]

Factual and Procedural Background

Daisy Arias began working at Blue Fountain Pools and Spas Inc. in Oct. 2006 as a customer service representative. Shortly after she began working there, a salesman named Sean LaGrave began sexually harassing her. Initially, LaGrave asked Arias for a date, and she turned him down. She then overheard LaGrave tell another employee that LaGrave would get her to go out with him. Within her first week, she complained to her supervisor, Don Hubbell, about LaGrave's harassment of her by asking her out on dates. LaGrave continued to ask her for dates until Dec. 2006, when he walked up behind her, grabbed her buttocks, and made a sexual noise. Arias complained to Hubbell again, but LaGrave's harassment grew worse.

LaGrave regularly made unwanted sexual advances to Arias and started bragging about his sexual abilities and conquests. When he passed Arias, he would touch her. Arias continued to complain about LaGrave's behavior to Hubbell, but LaGrave's behavior only escalated. He started showing Arias sexual pictures and telling her intimate details about his sex life. He showed her pictures of nude women covered with semen, women engaged in sex acts with him, and pictures of threesomes. Hubbell directly supervised Arias from 2006 to 2012, and Arias frequently complained to him about LaGrave's conduct. Hubbell promised several times to talk to LaGrave, and he was temporarily suspended one time. However, the harassment continued and worsened, which led Arias to believe that nothing would be done about her complaints. She started to complain about LaGrave's behavior directly to the owner, Arnold Zauss. The company failed to take appropriate corrective action, however.

In January 2015, Farhad Farhadian bought Blue Fountain from Zauss. Arias thought that the change in ownership might mean that something would be done about LaGrave's ongoing sexual harassment. She started complaining about LaGrave to Farhadian and explained the problems that had occurred. Instead of getting better, the situation grew worse. Farhadian began to join in with the sexual harassment at a Chrismas party in Dec. 2015. He sexually stared at the girlfriend of LaGrave and commented how nice her breasts looked under her blouse. He then went with LaGrave and his girlfriend to a strip club. LaGrave and Farhadian started regularly talking about breast implants in the office, and LaGrave asked Arias if she had ever thought about getting implants.

Farhadian started going to the strip club with LaGrave regularly. LaGrave began telling Arias about the trips to the strip club and provided details about Farhadian's sexual exploits with some of the dancers. LaGrave made sexual gestures to Arias and continued showing her sexual pictures. She continued to complain, but nothing was done. The harassment continued through 2016 and 2017 until she left the company in April 2017. On April 21, 2017, LaGrave, who was now her supervisor, yelled at her, used slurs about her gender, and chest-bumped her. Arias reported the incident to the police and told Farhadian that she was not comfortable coming back to work with LaGrave. Farhadian refused to remove LaGrave and terminated Arias's health insurance. He then told her to pick up her last paycheck. Arias claimed that she was terminated, but Farhadian claimed that she had voluntarily resigned.[2]

Arias filed a complaint against Farhadian, LaGrave, and Blue Fountain with the CDEH. The agency granted her leave to sue on Aug. 14, 2017. She filed a civil complaint in the San Bernardino Superior Court on Aug. 15, 2017. The defendants filed a motion for summary adjudication, arguing that Arias's hostile work environment claim was filed outside of the statute of limitations. They argued that her claim for a hostile work environment was time-barred because the violations began before the one-year statute of limitations. They also argued that she could not establish a continuing violation to get outside of the limitations period because the violations had become permanent before the statute of limitations period when Arias decided that complaining would not result in any action by the company.

The trial court denied the motion for summary adjudication on Oct. 25, 2019. The defendants then filed a petition for a writ of mandamus.

Issue: Whether the Sexual Harassment was a Continuing Violation That Tolled the Statute of Limitations?

The defendants argued that Arias's claims were time-barred by the one-year statute of limitations. They also argued that while she might rely on the continuing violation doctrine to get around the statute of limitations, any allegations based on incidents that had occurred more than one year prior could not form the basis for a lawsuit since a reasonable person in her position would have felt that further complaints were futile. They also argued that the entire complaint should be dismissed because harassment based on a continuing violation allegation could not include incidents outside of the one-year period.

Rule: Plaintiffs may Generally not Recover Under FEHA for Incidents That Happen Before the One-Year Statute of Limitations Unless the Continuing Violation Doctrine Applies.

Under Cal. Gov. Code § 12960, plaintiffs may not recover damages through a FEHA lawsuit for incidents that happen more than one year before the claim is filed.[3] However, the continuing violation doctrine allows plaintiffs in sexual harassment and other FEHA cases to recover damages for incidents that occurred before the one-year limitations period if they have a sufficient link to further unlawful actions that happened within the limitations period.[4]

Analysis

The Court of Appeals began by reviewing the record to see if evidence had been presented to show that a continuing violation had occurred in Arias's case. The court noted that if the earlier incidents had become permanent as the defendants alleged before the limitations period, that would not prevent Arias from seeking to recover damages for incidents that subsequently happened within the limitations period. The continuing violation doctrine allows employees to reach back in time before the limitations period to include incidents that happened that were linked to later-occurring incidents in a continuing pattern of unlawful conduct. The court found that LaGrave's misconduct was continuing throughout the limitations period and that Arias could pursue a claim based on all of the violations that happened after Farhadian purchased the company in 2015. It also found that Arias could present evidence of all of LaGrave's misconduct from 2006 to 2014 since the company never took any definitive action to resolve her complaints.

Conclusion

The court denied the petitioners' writ of mandamus and returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings. The court ordered that Arias was entitled to recover her costs on appeal.

Talk to an Experienced Employment Law Attorney

Sexual harassment in the workplace can make it impossible for people to do their jobs and can create an untenably hostile environment. If you have been the victim of sexual harassment at your job, contact the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, APC to request a consultation by calling us at 866.966.5240.

Source

[1] Blue Fountain Pools and Spas Inc. v. Superior Court

[2] Wrongful Termination

[3] California Code, Government Code - GOV § 12960

[4] Los Angeles Sexual Harassment Lawyer

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