San Francisco Sexual Harassment Attorney

At Rukin Hyland & Riggin LLP in San Francisco, we represent employees who have experienced sexual harassment at work. We understand how difficult, stressful, and sensitive these matters can be. The good news is that both California and federal law provide significant protections for employees who have experienced workplace sexual harassment.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and federal law. Despite these laws, sexual harassment remains a prevalent problem for employees in the workplace. There are two main types of unlawful sexual harassment:


Translated from Latin, quid pro quo means “something for something.” Thus, quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employee (generally, a manager or supervisor) offers or hints to a trade for something in return for sexual favors. Quid pro quo harassment can be either the threat of an adverse employment action (“sleep with me or you’re fired”) or the promise of an employment benefit (“sleep with me and you’ll get a raise”). This is unlawful regardless of whether the person harassed refuses or submits to the unwelcome advances. Quid pro quo is expressed or implied. Subtle hints or innuendo can be harassment as long as a reasonable person would interpret the conduct to be a threat or demand.


Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when an employer subjects an employee to unwelcome sexual conduct that is severe enough to interfere with an employee’s work performance or create an intimidating work environment.  Whether the sexual conduct is pervasive depends on the circumstances, including the nature of the conduct, its frequency, and the context in which it occurs.

Harassment need only be severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. In fact, the California Legislature recently made clear that one single incident may be sufficient to create a hostile work environment if it “unreasonably interfered” with the employee’s work environment or if it “created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” It also clarified that employees do not need to show that their productivity declined as a result of the harassment but rather only need to show that the harassment made it “more difficult to do the job.”

The status of the harasser may also make the harassing conduct more severe. Harassment by a high-level executive, manager, or owner is more serious. Moreover, employees do not have to be the direct target of sexual harassment to experience a hostile work environment. For example, women who witness a manager frequently harassing other female employees may have a hostile work environment claim. If a boss or manager shows favoritism toward an employee they are sexually involved with, it may create a hostile work environment for other co-workers.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

The following types of verbal or physical conduct can constitute sexual harassment:


Under California law, an employer is strictly liable when a manager or supervisor engages in sexual harassment. This means that if a manager or supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate, the employer is liable.  The employer is only liable for harassment between co-workers if it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take appropriate action.  In both cases, the employees who engage in the harassment are personally liable for their conduct. Employers are also liable for harassment by their customers or clients if they know or should have known about the harassment and failed to act.

Failure to Investigate Harassment

Employers have a duty under California and federal law to investigate all claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. Despite this legal obligation, some employers either fail to investigate allegations of sexual harassment or are negligent in their investigation. A well-known example of an employer failing to take adequate steps to address alleged sexual harassment is detailed in the San Francisco case of Weeks v. Baker & McKenzie, 63 Cal. App. 4th 1128 (1998).  Many law firm employees reported that a partner in Baker & McKenzie’s Palo Alto office had sexually harassed them, including sending vulgar notes, commenting on their appearance, tickling and touching them, and asking them on dates. The law firm took no steps to investigate the partner’s conduct until after an employee filed an EEOC charge nearly six years after the first complaint.

In addition to failing to investigate the harassment claims, the law firm retaliated against the complaining employees by transferring or firing them. The firm also refused to disseminate information about how to make a sexual harassment complaint, failed to document complaints made about the partner, and generally turned a blind eye to the partner’s misconduct. Ultimately, a jury awarded Ms. Weeks over $7 million in damages, though the trial court reduced the award to approximately $4 million. The case now serves as a lesson to employers about their obligations in handling complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.


If an employee reports or complains about sexual harassment, the employer must take immediate and effective steps to end the harassment. An employer cannot retaliate against any employee who reports harassment or who participates in a harassment investigation. If you believe you are the victim of sexual harassment at work and your employer has taken no action or has retaliated against you, you should speak with an attorney experienced in litigating sexual harassment claims.


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