A recent California sexual harassment case demonstrates why employers should provide sexual harassment training and take other preventative steps to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. In the 2019 case of Navarro v. 4Earth Farms, the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District, Division Five upheld a $300,000 jury award in a sexual harassment case.
Dominga Navarro was employed by 4Earth Farms, Inc. from July 2013 through January 2015, at which time she was terminated. Navarro subsequently filed a complaint against 4Earth Farms and some of her co-workers, alleging sexual harassment, disability discrimination, and wrongful termination pursuant to the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
At trial, the jury found that Nunez committed sexual harassment against Navarro and that Nunez committed quid pro quo sexual harassment. The jury also determined that 4Earth Farms retaliated against and wrongfully terminated Navarro after she reported a physical condition affecting her ability to work (a back brace) and after she complained about a hostile work environment.
In addition, the jury found that 4Earth failed to provide reasonable accommodations for Navarro’s physical condition but determined that this failure was not a substantial factor in causing her harm. 4Earth also failed to prevent sexual harassment, discrimination, or retaliation against Navarro. The jury found that Navarro’s termination was not premised on her physical condition, which precluded her cause of action for a disability discrimination.
The jury awarded Navarro $9,310 in lost earnings, $200,000 for “[p]ast non-economic losses including mental and emotional suffering,” and $100,000 in punitive damages.
On appeal, the court upheld the jury’s award, rejecting all of the defendant’s claims. The Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of past emotional distress. The appellate court also found that the trial court properly exercised its discretion in excluding evidence of Navarro’s sexual conduct with other employees. Finally, the appellate court found that there was sufficient evidence of Navarro’s claims of sexual harassment.
The Court of Appeals found substantial evidence supporting the jury’s finding that Nunez sexually harassed Navarro. According to California law, the harassment need not be severe and pervasive to impose liability; either severe or pervasive will suffice. The Court found that the record established a pattern and frequency of physical contact as well as unwelcome advances by Nunez that was sufficiently pervasive to alter the conditions of employment. The Court also found that the harasser, Nunez, met the definition of a “managing agent” under California law such that a punitive damages award was appropriate. Nunez was responsible for daily operations at the warehouse and exercised authority over training, team building, and discipline. Nunez’s actions impacted a substantial portion of the company, some of which came to the attention of the operations manager.
Under California law, employers are not be liable for punitive damages unless the employer has advanced knowledge of an employee’s unfitness and employed him or her with a conscious disregard of the rights of others, or authorized or ratified the conduct for which the damages are awarded. The term ‘managing agent’ [includes] only those corporate employees who exercise substantial independent authority and judgment in their corporate decision-making so that their decisions ultimately determine corporate policy.”
The most effective way to prevent a sexual harassment lawsuit is to prevent the harassment from occurring. Employers can do so by complying with California sexual harassment training requirements under SB 1343, which requires that employers with five or more employees provide sexual harassment prevention training. Although training is not required to be completed until January 1, 2021, as this case shows, delaying may not be in the best interest of employers.