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  • Emily Hall

California Court Supports the End of Free Passes in Sexual Harassment Claims

In response to the #MeToo movement, California took significant legislative steps in 2018 to address sexual harassment within the state.[1]  Specifically, the legislature passed Senate Bill No. 1300, which amended California’s Fair Housing and Employment Act to declare the state’s “intent with regard to application of the laws about harassment.”[2]  One particular enactment, § 12923, signified a concerted effort by California lawmakers to address the pervasive issue of workplace harassment and underscored the state's commitment to fostering environments free from harassment and discrimination.[3]  By explicitly declaring the legislative intent concerning the interpretation and enforcement of anti-harassment laws, the statute sought to provide clarity to judicial bodies and signal to employers that that one instance of sexual harassment was enough to create a hostile work environment.[4] 

In December 2023, the significance and impact of § 12923 came to the forefront of the legal world when a California appellate court applied the statute in Beltran v. Hardrock, a case involving a single incident of harassment.[5]  The court held that “[a] single incident of harassing conduct is sufficient to create a triable issue regarding the existence of a hostile work environment if the harassing conduct . . . created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”[6]  This holding directly tracks the language of § 12923(b).[7]  By allowing a single incident to suffice in hostile workplace claims, the bar is lowered for plaintiffs looking to pursue justice.[8]  Legal recourse for victims of workplace harassment is therefore more accessible and attainable.[9] 

The trial court in Beltran granted summary judgement in favor of the employer, but the appellate court reversed and remanded.[10] The court found a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a hostile work environment existed, thus precluding summary judgement.[11]  The Court of Appeals noted that the trial court “failed to take into account several key principles,” including § 12923(b)’s command that a “single incident of harassing conduct is sufficient to create a triable issue” of fact.[12]  Moreover, the trial court did not adhere to the instruction that “[h]arassment cases are rarely appropriate for disposition on summary judgment.”[13]  This holding and application of § 12923(e) means that a plaintiff’s claims have a stronger chance of surviving a motion for summary judgment or dismissal. Beltran signals that employers will not be able to shut down harassment claims before they can properly be litigated and heard in court.

The court noted that a statute that clarifies the law (rather than changes it) can be applied to cases involving acts that took place prior to the statue’s passage.[14] Accordingly, § 12923 can be applied to claims brought before the statute’s enactment on January 1, 2019, such as Beltran’s. This retroactive reach ensures that individuals who experienced harassment before the statute's enactment are not deprived of the protections and remedies afforded by § 12923. Thus, the court's recognition of the statute’s broad applicability underscores its commitment to upholding the legislatively enacted principles of fairness, equity, and accountability in addressing instances of workplace harassment.



[1] Jeff Daniels, New state laws: From workplace harassment protections to mandating women on boards, CNBC (Dec. 28, 2018), https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/28/new-state-laws-in-california-elsewhere-inspired-by-metoo-movement.html.

[2] Cᴀʟ. Gᴏᴠ'ᴛ Cᴏᴅᴇ § 12923 (West).

[3] See Daniels, supra note 1 (“‘California is one of the trailblazers on strengthening laws and there’s definitely a lot of political will to move quickly and address inadequacies,’ said Andrea Johnson, senior counsel for state policy at the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for women’s rights.”).

[4] Cᴀʟ. Gᴏᴠ'ᴛ Cᴏᴅᴇ § 12923(b) (“A single incident of harassing conduct is sufficient to create a triable issue regarding the existence of a hostile work environment. . .”). 

[5] See Beltran v. Hard Rock Hotel Licensing, Inc., 97 Cal. App. 5th 865, 880 (2023), review filed (Jan. 16, 2024).

[6] Id.

[7] Cᴀʟ. Gᴏᴠ'ᴛ Cᴏᴅᴇ § 12923(b).

[8] Marget Roosevelt, In 2019, California workers gain on pay and working conditions. Employers say it will be costly, L.A. Tɪᴍᴇs (Jan. 1, 2019), https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-california-workplace-laws-20190101-story.html (“Equally significant, [UC Berkeley law professor Catherine] Fisk suggested, is a new law, Senate Bill 1300, reversing what’s been called the ‘one free grope’ standard…The new statute eliminates the single-incident exception…”).

[9] Id.

[10] Beltran, 97 Cal. App. 5th at 881.

[11] Id. at 880.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. (citing Cᴀʟ. Gᴏᴠ'ᴛ Cᴏᴅᴇ § 12923(e)).

[14] Id. at 879. (“[T]his statute, by its plain language, falls into the category of clarification rather than substantial change.”).

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