On July 9, 2018, Governor Edmund Brown, Jr. signed into law Assembly Bill 2770 (“AB 2770”) to protect victims of sexual harassment and employers from defamation claims brought by alleged harassers. AB 2770 was sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce and passed by the California Legislature to address the chilling effect that the threat of defamation suits can have on harassment victims and employers: deterring victims and witnesses from coming forward; deterring employers from telling prospective employers about a genuine harasser; and allowing repeat sexual harassers to harass future victims at their new place of employment.

Privileged Communications Before AB 2770.

Existing law provides a qualified privilege to employer communications about a former or current employee’s job performance and qualifications. (Cal. Civil Code § 47(c).) Although court interpretations of Civil Code section 47(c) arguably allow for sexual harassment complaints and communications during a sexual harassment investigation to be covered by the privilege, the statutory language does not explicitly mention such communications.

AB 2770 Adds to the List of Privileged Communications.

AB 2770 amends Civil Code section 47(c) expressly to include the following three types of communications related to sexual harassment in the workplace:

  1. A complaint of sexual harassment, based on credible evidence and made without malice, by an employee to an employer;
  2. Communications between an employer and “interested persons,” made without malice, regarding a complaint of sexual harassment; and
  3. An employer’s answer, given without malice, to an inquiry about whether or not it would rehire a current or former employee, and whether the decision not to rehire is based on the employer’s determination that the former employee engaged in sexual harassment.

AB 2770 Does Not Protect Malicious Statements

Only statements made “without malice” are protected. A statement is made with “malice” if (1) it is motivated by hatred or ill will; or (2) the speaker lacked reasonable grounds for believing the truth of the statement. Further, AB 2770 does not impose an outright ban on defamation lawsuits by accused harassers. Accused harassers can still bring such suits, but they must prove malice in order to overcome the qualified privileged in Civil Code section 47(c). Thus, AB 2770 should deter and limit accused harassers from bringing defamation claims with little or no basis.

Last week, the EEOC released its latest edition of its federal sector Digest of Equal Opportunity Law, a quarterly publication featuring recent Commission decisions and federal court cases selected by EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations. This edition features an article titled, “Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment,” which is the fruition of an EEOC task force on workplace harassment. The article, which is particularly timely given the #MeToo movement, advances five core principles to deter and remedy harassment: (1) committed and engaged leadership; (2) consistent and demonstrated accountability; (3) strong and comprehensive harassment policies; (4) trusted and accessible complaint procedures; and (5) regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization.

The utility of this article is not the simple identification of these principles, which are familiar and uncontroversial, but rather its identification of practices/strategies an employer can implement to achieve these aims. These recommendations include:

  • Regularly and effectively train supervisors and managers about how to prevent, recognize and objectionable conduct that, if left unchecked, may rise to the level of prohibited harassment.
  • Direct staff to periodically, and in different ways, test the complaint system to determine if complaints are received and addressed promptly and appropriately.
  • Create a harassment complaint system with multiple avenues of complaint.
  • Conduct live, interactive harassment training on a regular basis.

Helpfully, the articles also enumerates specific statements that should be included in a harassment policy, including but not limited to, that:

  • The policy applies to employees at every level of the organization, as well as to applicants, clients, customers, and other relevant individuals;
  • Harassment based on, at a minimum, any legally protected characteristic is prohibited;
  • Employees are encouraged to report conduct that they believe may be prohibited harassment (or that, if left unchecked, may rise to the level of prohibited harassment), even if they are not sure that the conduct violates the policy;
  • The employer will provide a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation;
  • The identity of individuals who report harassment, alleged victims, witnesses, and alleged harassers will be kept confidential to the extent possible and permitted by law, consistent with a thorough and impartial investigation;
  • The organization will take immediate and proportionate corrective action if it determines that harassment has occurred; and
  • Retaliation is prohibited, and that individuals who report harassing conduct, participate in investigations, or take any other actions protected under federal employment discrimination laws will not be subjected to retaliation.

As the article acknowledges, these practices are not legal requirements under federal employment discrimination laws. However, employers should take note of these recommendations as they may enhance employers’ compliance efforts in both the short- and long-term.