Employee Allowed to Pursue Sexual Harassment Case, Despite Language in Job Application

signingAn employee who endured several alleged episodes of sexual harassment from a supervisor received a renewed opportunity to pursue her employer for the illegal conduct. The California Court of Appeal recently concluded that, although the harassment occurred outside the time period for filing a claim stated in the employee’s job application agreement, the employee could go forward anyway because the time period stipulated in the agreement was so short that it ran afoul of California public policy.

In 2009, Ashley Ellis took a job as a security guard for U.S. Security Associates. Following a promotion, Ellis’s position made Rick Haynes her supervisor. Haynes began sexually harassing Ellis. U.S. Security eventually terminated Haynes and promoted Ellis, promising her a pay of $14 per hour. When Ellis received her paycheck, however, the employer had increased her pay rate only to $10.50 per hour. Ellis resigned shortly thereafter and, 10 months later, sued her former employer under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The employer argued before the trial court that Ellis could not pursue her lawsuit because she had promised, as part of her employment application agreement, to bring all legal actions within six months of the incident triggering the dispute. The agreement also waived any statutes of limitations that gave the employee a longer time to sue. The trial court accepted the employer’s argument and dismissed the employee’s suit.

The appeals court was not persuaded, however, and reversed. The statutory scheme and legal remedies the FEHA created existed “for a public reason.” The court pointed out that one statutory section, Section 12920, specifically states that the FEHA was enacted because of California’s public policy “to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to … employment without discrimination” and that the benefit of the policy against sexual harassment extended to the public at large, not just the victimized employee.

The court acknowledged that contractual parties can agree to shorter the statutory periods for filing lawsuits, but that these abbreviated periods must be reasonable, meaning that the shortened period must still be long enough to give the injured party enough time to pursue legal action if she chose. The restriction imposed by the U.S. Security agreement was clearly not reasonable. The court stated that the “outside limit to sue” for a FEHA violation is “as long as three years—and necessarily somewhat more than two.” The Legislature made these periods extend that long for a reason. Shortening that window of time by more than 75% wsimply did not give employees enough time. “It is too short,” the court simply stated.

Job seekers are often extremely eager to secure employment and may agree to a wide array of terms just in order to receive consideration for employment. While prospective employers and employees can agree to some terms, the employer cannot ask employees (or prospective employees) to enter agreements that run afoul of public policy. For advice and representation regarding your employment dispute, consult the Oakland employment attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment attorneys can give you the knowledgeable assistance you need to protect your rights. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

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