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Sexual harassment does not need to be motivated by sexual desire

In January, the California Court of Appeals ruled that individuals may file an action for sexual harassment if they have been harassed with verbal attacks about their sexual identity — regardless of whether or not such attacks were motivated by sexual desire. Put another way, sexual harassment need not be driven by sexual desire to be considered sexual harassment.Thus, to prove harassment because of sex, plaintiffs need only offer evidence that gender was a significant factor in the harassment.

This particular decision resolves any uncertainty created by Kelley v. Conco Companies, 196 Cal. App. 4th 191 (2011). A show of desire is not essential in a sexual harassment claim. A plaintiff may, of course, still prove the inference that a harasser’s actions were sexual in nature and motivated by desire, but he or she may also argue that the instigator was motivated by general hostility towards a plaintiff’s gender. He or she might, for example, provide comparative evidence on the ways the harasser treated both sexes in the workplace.

This recent decision will become important for employers. In order to avoid such lawsuits, they must now examine offensive comments made by all workers in an objective manner, considering the content of the remarks and not the speaker’s intentions. Employers should institute strict complaint procedures, bring in zero tolerance rules and openly encourage employees to report any inappropriate behavior promptly. Employment policies and handbooks need to be updated to reflect this change, and employers must strive to inform workers of it.

Student activism drags lawmakers to the drafting table to deal with sexual assaults

Recently, students at the University of California, Berkeley, rose up in anger over their campus’ official handling of several sexual assaults in their midst. Student activists have chosen to file a federal complaint against the university. The institution is already facing a state investigation and heavy media criticism.

For the second time in a year, a large group of students has demanded that the U.S. Department of Education investigate UC Berkeley, suggesting that they violated federal anti-discrimination laws by failing to protect them against sexual harassment and assault. When the Department of Education took no discernible action, the students asked the Office for Civil Rights to intervene. By raising national awareness and controversy, the student groups have managed to push lawmakers to deal with these troubling situations expeditiously.

Activists argue that the campus disciplinary process does not adequately investigate or hold perpetrators responsible. Nor, they claim, does it keep victims informed about their cases. They offer specific incidents to back up their claims. The California clamor for drastic, grassroots changes in assault victim treatment is part of a national movement to force university campuses to deal with these issues in a fair, effective and expeditious manner. Such reform is long overdue; according to a White House task force, this type of violence currently has a direct impact on one in five college women.

Wrongful death lawsuit names Vacaville Police as defendants 

Last year, Vacaville police shot and killed a mentally ill Fairfield man. His family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police department and the city, claiming that the police were aware that the 23-year-old man had a mental illness when they pursued him in a low-speed chase in July 2013. It further alleges that they used excessive force and questionable tactics that could be considered recklessly provocative, and that this force and those tactics led to the man’s death.

The victim was shot three times as he approached police officials. The officers involved in the shooting have indicated that he approached them in a threatening, aggressive manner and was carrying a knife and a framing hammer or crowbar. Other details provided by the police suggest that the man was acting in a bizarre manner and making threats. When speeding, he refused to pull over, and, as such, became involved in the low-speed chase.
The police used their vehicles stop the man with a ramming PIT maneuver. The young man was seen to lean over to the passenger’s side of the vehicle. He then allegedly got out carrying potential weapons. Some witnesses at the scene have stated that the man did not have anything in his hands at all. One officer fired five times, hitting the man in the arm, chest and hip.

The lawsuit alleges that the victim was shot a mere five seconds after exiting the vehicle, and that the police did not follow proper enforcement protocol and training on safe handling of an emotionally/mentally disturbed individual.

There are a number of unanswered questions and many allegations that do not appear to make sense. While the young man refused to pull over, the chase that ensued stayed at low speeds. There are distinct size and visual differences between a crowbar and framing hammer, and reports of the victim holding anything at all have been inconsistent. It is hard to predict what a court will decide, but in this wrongful death case, the man’s parents are hoping to send a message to the police department: they need to take responsibility for their actions and speak truthfully.