December 17, 2017

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Judges and Legislators in Chicago and California Seek to Expand Protections for Hotel Workers

In the wake of a deluge of sexual harassment accusations being leveled against high profile figures, and the ensuing #MeToo social media movement, some legislators and judges have been eager to expand protections for certain individuals they see as particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault, including hotel workers.

California: Hotel Worker Can Sue Hotel for Sexual Assault by Non-Employee Trespasser

On October 26, 2017, a California Court of Appeal ruled in M.F. v. Pacific Pearl Hotel Management, LLC that a hotel worker could pursue sexual harassment-related claims against her hotel employer, for a sexual assault she allegedly suffered at the hands of a non-employee trespasser.

M.F. was a housekeeper who cleaned rooms at the five-building hotel property of Pacific Pearl Hotel Management, LLC (“Pacific”). M.F. alleged she was cleaning a hotel room and a drunken trespasser entered the room, punched her, and raped her for over two hours. Before the rape occurred, Pacific’s management had been aware of the trespasser’s presence on the hotel grounds, had seen him walking the property early in the morning with a beer in hand, and had been notified by a housekeeper (not M.F.) that he had offered her money in exchange for sexual favors. Upon being notified that he had propositioned the other housekeeper, a manager broadcasted the trespasser’s activities and location to other managers via walkie-talkie. Management then checked on the safety of the housekeepers in some areas of the hotel, but nobody checked the building and floor where M.F. was working. Additionally, nobody came to M.F.’s aid during the two-hour-long assault, nor answered the phone when she called housekeeping for help.

M.F. later sued Pacific for sexual harassment and failure to prevent sexual harassment. Pacific demurred to M.F.’s complaint, arguing that M.F. failed to state a viable claim because Pacific could not be held liable for the trespasser’s conduct. The trial court repeatedly ruled in Pacific’s favor, ultimately granting Pacific’s demurrer to M.F.’s third amended complaint without leave to amend. M.F. appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed, ruling that M.F.’s allegations, if true, were sufficient to establish that Pacific knew or should have known of the danger the trespasser posed to employees, had a duty to protect M.F. from the trespasser’s conduct, and failed to take adequate steps do so.

Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), an employer may be responsible for acts of sexual harassment by non-employees, if the employer knew or should have known about the conduct and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. Applying this language, the Court of Appeal found that, after the trespasser began confronting and aggressively propositioning housekeeping employees for sexual favors, Pacific was on notice of the danger he posed to Pacific’s employees and had an obligation to end his current course of conduct and deter future harassment. While Pacific argued that it fulfilled this responsibility by providing a “reasonable and adequate response,” the Court of Appeal held that this was a question of fact and could not be resolved on demurrer.

Critically, the fact the trespasser’s initial harassment was not directed at M.F. did not preclude Pacific from having responsibilities to protect her under FEHA. Once it received the initial report from M.F.’s coworker that the trespasser propositioned her for sex, Pacific had an obligation to protect all employees from sexual harassment or assault by the trespasser. The Court found that the initial conduct of which M.F.’s coworker earlier complained was so egregious that Pacific reasonably should have taken serious steps to protect likely future victims and held: “The more egregious the abuse and the more serious the threat of which the employer has notice, the more the employer will be required under a standard of reasonable care to take steps for the protection of likely future victims.” Thus, the Court of Appeal ruled that M.F.’s claims against Pacific could proceed.

Chicago: Hotels Must Expand Harassment Policies and Equip Workers with Panic Buttons

As an update to our recent post, the Chicago City Council passed the Hotel Workers Sexual Harassment Ordinance on October 11, 2017. The ordinance requires hotels in Chicago to:

  1. By December 10, 2017: Develop, maintain, and comply with expanded anti-sexual harassment policies as described in our recent post; provide the policy to all employees in English, Spanish, and Polish; and post it in conspicuous places like lunch rooms and supply rooms.

  2. By July 1, 2018: Provide panic buttons or similar notification devices to employees and subcontractors who work alone in guest rooms or restrooms.

Failing to comply with these requirements or retaliating against an employee for seeking protections under the ordinance may subject an employer to fines or the suspension or revocation of their hotel license.

Takeaways

Lawmakers and judges appear increasingly focused on the protection of hotel employees and other workers seen as more likely to face sexual conduct in the workplace. To ensure your workplace provides sufficient protections to employees and fully complies with applicable laws, we recommend seeking legal counsel to review your anti-harassment policies and procedures. Chicago hotel employers in particular should work with legal counsel to immediately update their anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies, and to ensure they comply with all requirements of the new ordinance before the rapidly-approaching December 10, 2017 deadline.

Copyright © 2017, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.

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About this Author

Anna M. Stancu, Sheppard Mullin Law Firm, Labor Law Attorney
Associate

Anna Stancu is an associate in the Labor and Employment Practice Group in the firm's Los Angeles office. 

Ms. Stancu specializes in defending employers in labor and employment disputes.  She has handled a wide range of matters, including those involving claims of discrimination and harassment based on race, national origin, age, sex, disability, and sexual orientation; wrongful termination in violation of public policy; whistleblower and other retaliation claims; breach of contract; unfair competition; defamation; wage and hour...

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