A manager who’s engaged in sexual relations with subordinates is, under some circumstances, creating a hostile work environment, resulting in sexual harassment of other employees who are not involved, the California Supreme Court ruled July 18.
Former employees at the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla set up the legal battle with their complaint that then-warden Lewis Kuykendall was sexually involved with at least three women at the same time.
The plaintiffs, themselves not sexually involved with the warden, alleged sexual harassment against the Department of Corrections and sued for damages. A lower court ruled against the women, saying the plaintiffs “were not themselves subjected to sexual advances and were not treated any differently than male employees.”
However, the state Supreme Court overturned that decision July 18.
“Although an isolated instance of favoritism … ordinarily would not constitute sexual harassment, when such sexual favoritism in a workplace is sufficiently widespread … in which the demeaning message is conveyed to female employees that they are viewed by management as ‘sexual playthings’ or that the way required for women to get ahead in the workplace is by engaging in sexual conduct,” it can and does constitute harassment, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote in a strongly-worded decision for the unanimous court.
Phil Horowitz, of the California Employment Lawyers Association, who submitted a brief to the court in support of the women, called the decision “groundbreaking.”
“It’s the first major decision saying women can sue if they are treated worse because they’re not the paramour of the supervisor,” Horowitz told the Associated Press. “It’s going to protect a lot of women in California from abuse and, hopefully, start a trend rolling in other jurisdictions.”
The women sued in June 1999, alleging a pattern of harassment based on Kuykendall’s relationships. From 1991 until 1998, the former warden “granted unwarranted and unfair employment benefits to the three women,” the high court wrote.
When the women complained, they suffered retaliation, the high court wrote, calling it “an outrageous campaign of harassment against the plaintiffs.”
An Internal Affairs investigation in 1998 resulted in Kuykendall’s retirement.