The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over San Francisco and Oakland and most other cities in California. The court’s decisions have significant impact across the state. A recent decision of the Ninth Circuit will affect the duty of employers to protect employees against harassing activity by customers in addition to other employees.
The acts of harassment
An employee of the Umpqua Bank in Portland first noticed harassing behavior by a customer in 2013. The customer is alleged to have made a number of unsolicited and unwelcome approaches, including written love notes and flowers. The customer was also alleged to have asked other employees at the bank how he could get a date with the woman. He even stalked her at a charity event.
The woman complained to her supervisors at the bank about the harassing behavior and asked them to obtain a no-trespass order against the customer. They failed to follow this request and instead told the woman to hide in the break room when the customer appeared. Eventually, the woman transferred to another branch of the bank where she was given fewer hours to work. The woman resigned from the bank shortly afterward and then sued the bank under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state law. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the bank, and the woman took her case to the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision
In granting summary judgment in favor of the bank, the district court was required to find that the case had no material issues of fact and that the bank was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled unanimously that the district court erred in granting the bank’s motion for summary judgment because the plaintiff had raised material issues of fact. The court first ruled that the district court erred in isolating various instances of harassing behavior. The court decided that a jury could find the entire pattern of harassing acts to have created a hostile work environment. The court also ruled that the non-verbal actions of sending flowers, sending her love notes and watching her in the bank lobby should be considered as examples of harassing behavior. The court sent the case back to the district court for a trial of the factual issued.
Impact of the court’s decision
This decision will have an impact on sexual harassment cases in California. Anyone who may be concerned about possible working in a hostile work environment may wish to consult an experienced employment lawyer to obtain an opinion about how this recent decision may affect the ability to obtain relief.