The California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, recently examined whether a trial court erroneously instructed a jury on the definition of a supervisor under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) in an employee’s sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer. (Chapman v. Enos, (2004 Daily Journal D.A.R. 3100, Cal. App. 1 Dist., Mar 10, 2004))
April Chapman worked as an investigator for the County of Sonoma District Attorney’s office. Although she was under the supervision of senior and chief investigators, she performed her duties under the direction of the deputy district attorney assigned to her unit. In 1997, Chapman was assigned to work with deputy district attorney Bruce Enos, who directed virtually all of her duties. She received no assignments from the senior and chief investigators. She also cleared her time off with Enos before seeking approval from the chief investigator. Soon after Chapman began working with Enos, Chapman claims that he began a campaign of sexual harassment. After enduring the harassment for over a year and a half, she reported his behavior to the district attorney. The district attorney transferred Chapman to another office and disciplined Enos by suspending him from work for one week.
In Chapman’s lawsuit for sexual harassment, the jury found in favor of the County and Enos after concluding that Chapman had failed to show that Enos was her supervisor within the definition of supervisor provided by the trial court in the jury instructions.
Appellate Court Decision
The Court of Appeal found that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on the definition of a supervisor under the FEHA. Although an employer is strictly liable under the FEHA for the harassing actions of its supervisors, it is only liable for harassment by a coworker if it knew of the harassing conduct and failed to take corrective action. Chapman contends that Enos was her supervisor and not merely a co-worker. Supervisor is defined in Government Code section 12926 subdivision (r) as including any individuals having the responsibility to direct other employees. The trial court instructed the jury that, in order for Enos to be considered a supervisor, he must have been directly responsible for the performance of his department unit and must have been fully accountable and responsible for Chapman’s performance and work product. The Court of Appeal determined that the trial court’s definition is inconsistent with the FEHA because it significantly restricts the class of employee that can be held liable for sexual harassment.
The Court concluded that Enos was Chapman’s supervisor within the meaning of the FEHA because Enos directed her day-to-day duties, assigned virtually all of her tasks, and approved her requests for leave. He was also responsible for providing information to the chief investigator to be used to complete her performance evaluations. The Court concluded that the trial court’s error in instructing the jury was prejudicial to Chapman and sent the case back to the trial court for a new trial.
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