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Office Sexual Harassment Bill Passes

Legislature: The law would make employees, not just supervisors and employers, personally liable for abusing co-workers.


SACRAMENTO — The state Senate on Tuesday approved and sent to Gov. Gray Davis a bill to make employees personally liable for sexually harassing co-workers.

The bill by Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) is designed to make certain that, under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, workplace harassers pay damages to their victims.

"We're trying to make people personally responsible for their acts," said Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco).

Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), predicted that the bill, AB 1856, would result in more lawsuits. "The Consumer Attorneys of California [an association of trial lawyers] love this bill," he said.

Opposed by labor and employers alike, the proposal went to Davis on a 21-12 vote, the bare majority required in the Senate. It cleared the Assembly in June with only one vote to spare.

A spokesman for Davis said the governor has taken no position on the bill.

The legislation would supersede a controversial 1999 ruling by the state Supreme Court, which held that only employers and supervisors can be sued by harassment victims under the state employment and housing law.

In its unanimous decision, the court said the law did not clearly impose personal liability on workers who sexually harass fellow employees of equal rank.

That decision came as a surprise, especially to officials of the Fair Employment and Housing Department. The department had long been operating on the belief that the law authorized suits against an employer or "any person" who sexually harassed others at the job.

"If the Legislature believes it necessary and desirable to impose liability on co-workers, it can do so," the court said.

In response, Kuehl introduced the bill to make clear that co-workers of equal status can be sued and held personally liable for sexual harassment.

The bill was supported by lobbies representing trial lawyers, civil libertarians, women's rights advocates, an anti-poverty lobby and the state commissions on the Status of Women and Fair Employment and Housing.

United in opposition to the bill was a disparate collection of interests that often find themselves on opposite sides of legislative fights. They included major employers, labor unions, cities, motion picture producers, water contractors and Christian fundamentalists.

Democratic supporters of the bill said they were puzzled that the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, lobbied to defeat the legislation.

The federation argued that holding the employer liable for the sexual harassment of employees should be enough of a deterrent. If it isn't, "perhaps we should impose greater liability on employers for failing to uphold their responsibility," the federation said.

Employers charged that explicitly creating a liability for the sexual harassment of co-workers would produce more lawsuits and add to the "already high cost of employment litigation."

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