While California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) generally holds employers strictly liable for harassment by a supervisor, the recent decision in Atalla v. Rite Aid Corporation (“Atalla”) from the Court of Appeal establishes an important limitation for personal relationships between employees.
Background to Atalla
The plaintiff, Hanin Atalla, was a pharmacist at Rite Aid. She filed a FEHA sexual harassment claim against Rite Aid’s district manager and the plaintiff’s supervisor, Erik Lund. The claim stemmed from an offsite and after-hours text exchange in which Lund sent lewd photographs to Atalla.
As Atalla’s former employer, Rite Aid argued they had no liability because the interaction occurred outside of the workplace and Lund was not acting in the capacity of a supervisor when he sent the inappropriate text. Atalla, however, claimed that the text message and her friendship with Lund was related to the workplace because “she only interacted with him to further herself in her career”. The trial court granted summary judgment to Rite Aid.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
Atalla appealed the trial court’s decision. Ultimately, the Court of Appeal affirmed summary judgment for Rite Aid, finding that the interaction “clearly did not occur at work or during normal working hours.” Lund’s conduct towards Atalla was not attributable to Rite Aid because he was not acting in the capacity of a supervisor when the text message was sent. Instead, the interaction was “spawned from a personal exchange that arose from a friendship” between Atalla and Lund. Their personal relationship was “predated and independent of their respective employment with Rite Aid”, which was evidenced by numerous text exchanges, and several prior instances of socializing outside of the workplace.
Although Atalla claimed that her interactions with Lund were merely motivated by the possibility of career advancement, the Court explained that it “does not change the fact of their personal relationship or the fact that [she] was a willing participant in it.”
Takeaway for Employers
The Court of Appeal’s decision may provide protection to employers in instances where a supervisor and employee’s personal relationship exists independently of the employer. Nevertheless, employers should continue to maintain policies and procedures to deter work-related misconduct between supervisors and subordinates.
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