Brian Lewis, a volunteer and later paid intern at the City of Benecia’s water treatment plan, claimed he was sexually harassed by two male supervisors (Hickman and Lantrip) in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), that he was subject to retaliation when he complained of the harassment, and that the City was liable for failing to prevent sexual harassment.
Among other rulings challenged on appeal, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Hickman and Lantrip, and granted the City’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. Lewis challenged these and other rulings.
First, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s granting of Hickman’s motion for summary judgment. As the Court of Appeal explained,
sexual harassment can occur between members of the same gender as long as the plaintiff can establish the harassment amounted to discrimination because of sex.”
California appellate districts had been divided as to the meaning of the term “because of sex,” with some courts ruling that the plaintiff needed to show evidence that the alleged harasser was acting out of genuine sexual interest, and others ruling that same-gender harassment could also consist of comments amongst heterosexuals designed to humiliate the plaintiff and challenge his gender identity.
In 2013, the California Legislature resolved this split among appellate courts by amending the FEHA to clarify that “[s]exually harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire.” However, as the Court ruled, there was no need to address the effect of this amendment on the present case (i.e., whether the 2013 amendment could operate retroactively as to events that occurred in 2008 and 2009), because “the present case allows an inference that Hickman was motivated by sexual interest.”