Over the past few years, workplace bullying and microinequities not obviously based on protected characteristics have received much attention. Although the California Workers’ Compensation Act preempts civil lawsuits for such claims unless a recognized exception to preemption applies, such conduct can pose liability risks. Such matters have been the subject of law firm commentary and an entire website.
The Workers Compensation Act preempts claims by an employee against the employer or a fellow employee for any injuries (including emotional injuries) that arise out of the employment relationship, even if based on conduct that is “manifestly unfair, outrageous, harassment, or intended to cause emotional disturbance resulting in disability.” See Cole v. Fair Oaks Fire Protection Dist., 43 Cal.3d 148 (1987).
The Act itself expressly exempts some injury claims from preemption, such as those resulting from a willful and unprovoked physical act of aggression of another employee (Labor Code section 3603(a)(1)) and from failure to install or removal of a guard on a power press (Labor Code section 4558). The courts have determined that claims based on other conduct may survive preemption if the conduct contravenes fundamental public policy or exceeds risks inherent in employment relationship. See Livitsanos v. Superior Court, 2 Cal.4th 744 (1992). The most important court-created exceptions are for claims under the anti-discrimination laws, and for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. See City of Moorpark v. Superior Court, 18 Cal.4th 1143 (1998) and Shoemaker v. Myers, 52 Cal.3d 1 (1990).
Although these principles would appear to severely limit liability, the reality is that the plethora of protected characteristics in the anti-discrimination laws and the multitude of public policies that can provide a basis for wrongful termination claims make almost any workplace unpleasantness a potential source of civil liability.
If an employee treats female employees unpleasantly, but is neutral to male employees, there may be a sexual harassment claim, even if the conduct is not expressly based on sex. See EEOC v. National Educ. Ass’n, Alaska, 422 F.3d 840 (9th Cir. 2005). An employee who appears equally abusive to all will create liability for an unlawful hostile environment by letting one epithet slip, even though a single epithet alone would not create liability. See Dee v. Vintage Petroleum, Inc., 106 Cal.App.4th 30 (2003) (“it is your Filipino understanding versus mine” created liability for harassment when combined with other abusive behavior).
To limit the risk of liability for hostile environment claims, the employer must intervene when an employee makes life unpleasant for other employees. Any such situation may turn into an unlawful harassment claim. Preventing unpleasant conduct will also make the workplace more comfortable for all, and promote employee productivity.