In a decision published July 2, 2009, the California Supreme Court has stated that the same legal standards currently used to determine sexual harassment in the workplace, under both Title VII and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, also apply to liability determinations for alleged sexual harassment in business, service and professional relationships, which is prohibited by California Civil Code § 51.9. (Hughes v. Pair, S157197 (7/2/09)).
This Civil Code section prohibits sexual harassment outside the employment context, where the defendant is in a business, service or professional relationship as a physician, dentist, psychotherapist, attorney, real estate agent, appraiser, accountant, banker, trust officer, financial planner, loan officer, collection service, building contractor, loan officer, executor, trustee or administrator, landlord, property manager, teacher, or in a relationship that is substantially similar to the above.
The Court has made it clear that the same standards used to determine sexual harassment in the workplace are equally applicable to determine whether a professional has engaged in sexual harassment during the course of the business or professional relationship. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that an isolated instance of inappropriate behavior by the defendant did not constitute sexual harassment under either a quid pro quo or hostile environment theory. However, the ruling should serve as a grim reminder to professionals that, in California at least, there can be serious, legal and financial consequences when a client asserts that a professional’s behavior is out of bounds.