In responding to claim of harassment, discrimination or retaliation based on protected categories, California employers must timely respond to and thoroughly investigate workplace complaints to avoid exposure. On July 9, 2018, a California Court of Appeal court found an employer liable where an employee was mocking a person for having a stutter on more than five, but less than fifteen occasions over a two-year period from 2006 to 2008. In Caldera v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, et al., the plaintiff brought suit after allegedly being subject to jokes over a two-year period of time. The jury awarded plaintiff $500,000. The trial court, finding the jury award excessive, granted a new trial as to damages. Both parties appealed.
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision to overturn the verdict. The Court noted that since two of the mocking incidents took place in front of several other employees and supervisors, and a psychologist testified that the mocking caused plaintiff to experience psychological disorders, a “totality of the circumstances” indicates that the harassing conduct was severe. And even though neither plaintiff nor his witnesses could remember exactly how many times plaintiff was mocked or when exactly he was subject to any mocking the court found that the employer’s culture supported the jury’s finding that the harassing conduct was also pervasive. This case underscores the importance of being proactive to workplace concerns. California jurors and courts will not tolerate harassing conduct even when specifically linked to individuals mocking an employee’s stuttering problem.