In response to the recent high-profile allegations of sexual harassment following the #MeToo campaign, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 224 (SB-224) to expand existing protections of employees and applicants from sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition to the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s (FEHA) protection, Civil Code section 51.9 of the Unruh Act imposes liability for sexual harassment occurring within a non-employment context involving a business, service, or professional relationship.
Prior to the passage of SB-224, Civil Code section 51.9 stated that sexual harassment liability exists when a plaintiff shows that a business, service, or professional relationship exists, and the following elements are met:
- The defendant has made sexual advances, solicitations, requests, demands for sexual compliance, or engaged in other verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature or of a hostile nature based on gender, that were unwelcome and pervasive or severe.
- The plaintiff could not easily terminate the relationship.
- The plaintiff has suffered or will suffer economic loss or disadvantage or personal injury as a result of the defendant’s conduct.
The individuals subject to liability included doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, teachers, landlords, investors, financial planners, loan officers, etc.
SB-224 amended Civil Code section 51.9 by removing the 2nd element listed above and expanding the list of individuals who could be liable for sexual harassment to include elected officials, lobbyists, and directors or producers. The new law also amends FEHA to authorize the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) to handle sexual harassment complaints arising from these non-employer relationships. SB-224 went into effect January 1, 2019.