What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment in California?

By Samantha Kemp

While Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act provides sweeping protection for employees who are victims of unlawful harassment, and by extension a hostile work environment, California has additional laws that provide further protection. Persons who are subjected to harassment to such an extent that their work environments become hostile may have legal claims against their employers under state law.

Protected Status

Not all forms of harassment are illegal. To recover damages under a hostile work environment claim, the plaintiff must be a member of a legally protected class. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, collectively prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, nationality, disability and age under federal laws. California law further prohibits harassment based on an employee's or job applicant's ancestry, medical condition, sexual orientation or marital status.

Elements of Hostile Work Environment Claim

Employee or Job Applicant

The plaintiff must be an employee or job applicant, or an outside person who provided services to the employer under a contract.

Subjected to Harassment

The plaintiff must have been subjected to unwanted harassing conduct. This may include physical contact, intimidation, requests for sexual conduct, jokes, insults or other verbal comments. Under California law, a plaintiff can bring a claim even if she was not the target of such conduct. For example, if she overheard an offensive joke or racial slurs directed at others that were persistent enough to constitute a hostile environment.

Persistent and Severe

The harassing conduct must have been so severe or persistent that a reasonable person in the same protected class would have considered the work environment to be abusive or hostile. California uses this objective standard to determine whether a hostile work environment exists. However, the plaintiff must have subjectively considered the work environment to be hostile or abusive.

Employer's Knowledge

An employer can be held responsible for the harassment even if the unlawful behavior was committed by a co-worker or a customer of the business. If the conduct was perpetrated by a supervisor or other employee, the employer must have known about the conduct or should have known about the conduct. Once the employer learns of the harassing conduct, it must take corrective action immediately to avoid liability for maintaining a hostile work environment.


To be awarded administrative damages from California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the plaintiff must show that he was harmed by the conduct and that the conduct was a substantial factor in the harm he experienced. Harm may include physical injury, emotional distress or an adverse employment action. Damages may include back pay, return to a job or payment of actual damages, such as emotional pain and suffering. The damage cap is $50,000. Administrative fines can also be assessed against the employer, which are paid into a general fund. Damages can exceed these amounts if the case goes to civil court.

Filing a Claim

The state agency that handles hostile work environment claims is California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Employees can use the DFEH website to file online complaints. Individuals can also file a claim with a California field office of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The two agencies have a work-share agreement, meaning that if a complaint is filed with one of the agencies, it is considered filed with the other agency.

There are some differences between the two agencies. For example, California's law applies to employers with one or more employees, while the federal law covers employers with 15 or more employees. Complaints must be filed within 300 days with the federal EEOC when the state agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis, but DFEH complaints can be filed up to one year after the alleged incident.

An individual has one year to file a complaint with the DFEH after the last alleged incident of harassment occurred. The claimant can request a right-to-sue letter from the agency any time after the complaint is filed. Under California law, he has one year after the right-to-sue letter is issued to file a civil action in court.

About the Author

Samantha Kemp is a lawyer for a general practice firm. She has been writing professionally since 2009. Her articles focus on legal issues, personal finance, business and education. Kemp acquired her JD from the University of Arkansas School of Law. She also has degrees in economics and business and teaching.

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