California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, makes it illegal for employers to allow anyone to be sexually harassed at work, regardless of one’s gender, race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or national origin. By placing the onus on employers, it holds them accountable for creating a work environment that is free from harassment. Hence, sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal when employers knowingly ignore its presence and/ or do not take the appropriate steps to assure it ceases. There are specific steps an employer must take when sexual harassment claims have been made, including commencing an obligatory investigation. Depending on the situation and the company, some employers will rely on an in-house Human Resources department to head the investigation, while others may hire an outside professional.
Regardless of what took place, when an employee files a sexual harassment claim, an employer is required to conduct a fair investigation. If the results of the investigation determine the claim accusation to be unfounded, the claim against the accused employee will be dropped, and employers need not take any corrective action against the accused. However, depending on the severity of the accusation, even in situations where a complaint investigation found an employee to be falsely accused of sexual harassment, the mere accusation will likely lead to the suffering of his or her reputation, and furthermore, he or she may still lose his or her job. In this type of situation, it may be best to consult with and/ or hire an attorney that has experience with the employee-side of employment law.
Complaint Process With a Government Agency
When a sexual harassment complaint is made, an employer is responsible for conducting an investigation of relevant information surrounding the complaint, and must resolve the situation in accordance with the Fair Employment and Housing Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing also referred to as DFEH, is the state agency where sexual harassment complaints are reported. When a sexual harassment complaint is filed, it initiates the first of several subsequent steps that DFEH are legally required to follow. Some may have the notion that a sexual harassment claim will always side with the perceived victim, but going through a thorough investigation process is meant to help assure a non-biased outcome.
When an investigation is concluded, and if the employee is found responsible, the employee will likely endure professional ramifications, including reprimands and being fired. Unfortunately, the wrongfully accused do not have many rights with regard to an employer firing an employee, provided they have a reason for termination that is not prohibited by law. Furthermore, employers are free to fire at-will employees without reason. Therefore, it is not uncommon for an employer to dismiss an accused employee, regardless of the findings of the investigation, in efforts to navigate out of a difficult situation. Consequently, it is common for an employer to side with the accuser rather than the accused, so as to avoid any potential future complaints. The nuances that surround these types of complicated terminations may warrant hiring the services of an attorney, especially if the employment discharge reason is unlawful. In situations where the results of an investigation lead to an employee being fired based on false claims, it is best to hire a lawyer to assist with negotiating an exit package from the company.
Wrongful Termination Compensation Awards
Specifically in California, if an employee has been wrongfully terminated under the guise of an unfounded sexual harassment claim and is able to provide sufficient proof that the actual reason for the termination was unlawful, with employment attorney representation, he or she may be awarded financial compensation and/ or the reinstatement of his or her job. California offers three types of damages, also known as compensation awards, to an employee that wins a wrongful termination claim. They include the following:
- Economic damages compensate a wrongfully terminated employee in the amount of money he or she would have otherwise earned had the termination not occurred.
- Non-economic damages provide financial compensation to the employee for the emotional suffering and pain that occurred as a result of the wrongful termination.
- Punitive damages are intended as a punishment for the employer and are awarded at the discretion of a court in attempts to prevent future wrongful terminations by the employer.
In order to pursue legal action after being wrongfully fired from a job, an attorney will likely need access to all pertinent information, including letters, emails, sworn statements of witnesses…etc. This evidence will help prove a wrongful termination claim. Although there are no federal or state laws in place that protect falsely accused employees of sexual harassment, firing an employee for unlawful reasons is illegal.
Disclaimer: Please note, while every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to be legal advice, as situations differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.