Hate crime law used in case of sex harassment
Using what a judge described as a “novel and unprecedented” approach, an employee in Southern California invoked a relatively obscure law created to redress race violence to recover almost $600,000 in damages and fees for sex harassment. The case of Ventura v. ABM Industries is unique both in the law it applied, Civil Code Section 51.7, as well as the egregiousness of the alleged harassment, and the employer’s callous indifference to it. The case claims that the plaintiff’s manager routinely hit on women subordinates; forced them to engage in sexual relationships with him (by, among other things, threatening to tell their husbands that they were already having affairs); physically grabbed, groped and tried to kiss women co-workers; and routinely got drunk at work. The employer, ABM Industries, a janitorial service, purportedly knew this was all going on but did nothing to try to stop it (the company contends plaintiff’s relationship with the supervisor was consensual). A jury awarded the plaintiff $125,000 in damages and fines, plus another $550,000 in attorneys’ fees (although plaintiff’s attorneys had requested more than $1.5 million). Although it upheld the verdict, the appellate court questioned whether Section 51.7 should even apply to cases of workplace sex harassment, which are typically adjudicated under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. In a dissent, one judge said Section 51.7 should be confined only to instances of hate crimes motivated by race, as that was the main impetus for the law’s enactment. Extending the law to sex harassment could lead to “absurd results,” the judge argued, such as domestic disputes being characterized as hate crimes. Still, in light of the court’s ruling, Section 51.7 can indeed be invoked in workplace disputes.