Sexually Harassed Victim Unable to Sue Individual Supervisors for Retaliation/Wrongful Termination « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles

Sexually Harassed Victim Unable to Sue Individual Supervisors for Retaliation/Wrongful Termination

Sexually Harassed Victim Unable to Sue Individual Supervisors for Retaliation/Wrongful Termination

A recent California federal court ruling confirmed that company supervisors are not individually liable for retaliatory acts.  Sarmas v. County of Stanislaus, et al. October 26, 2009 Westlaw 3489425 (Eastern District California).

According to Stanislaus County’s Sheriff’s Department (Department) employee Valine Sarmas, Sheriff Christianson’s sergeant Pedro Beltran sexually harassed her on two incidents in September and October 2008 during which he made unwelcome physical advances, insisted she drive him to a strip club, kissed, bit and groped her in her car, and showed her cell phone videos of him having sex with another coworker.  Days after the September incident, Sarmas learned a Department lieutenant was aware of Beltran’s conduct and was investigating the matter further. Beltran himself then contacted Sarmas, voicing his concern that he would be fired and asking Sarmas what she intended to say in the investigation.  She responded she would tell the truth.

On January 20, 2009, Sarmas called 911 for assistance when a man came to her front door, verbally harassed her and her friends, and made various threats.  The police arrested that suspect.  On February 2, 2009, the Department’s Internal Affairs informed Sarmas she was being investigated on rumors that the man arrested at her home in January was a gang member and her boyfriend.  Then on March 2, 2009, the Department fired Sarmas despite having given her an excellent performance evaluation the week before.  The reason for her termination was “administrative decision.”

Sarmas’s lawsuit for violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) alleged that her termination was “retaliation for bringing Beltran’s conduct towards her to the attention of Internal Affairs and Sheriff’s Department command staff.”

The individual defendants, Sheriff Christianson and Sergeant Beltran filed a motion to dismiss the retaliation cause of action, contending that as a matter of law Sarmas was unable to sue them as supervisors for retaliation/wrongful termination under California law.  The district court agreed, ruling that Stanislaus County (Sarma’s employer) was the only proper retaliation defendant as settled by the California Supreme Court’s ruling in Jones v. Lodge at Torrey Pines Partnership (2008) 42 California Reports 4th 1158.

Disagreeing with two appellate court cases and a federal Ninth Circuit case to the contrary, the Jones court had ruled that only an employer can be liable under FEHA for firing someone in retaliation and not individual supervisors.

In a footnote of its Jones ruling, however, the Court stated it was only addressing alleged retaliation by firing, demotion or other major deprivation of benefits.  It left open whether a supervisor might be personally liable for retaliating against an employee by harassing that individual.  One or more future decisions may deal with that issue.

If you have any questions, please contact me or any of our other employment law attorneys.   Best,  Cindy Bamforth