woman sitting at a desk with a laptop is surprised while and a man standing behind her has a hand on her shoulder

While most of the entertainment industry is quiet right now, one huge piece of news dropped recently. The state of California has filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the long-running show Criminal Minds. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing is suing every studio and executive producer involved with the show on accusations of shielding director of photography Gregory St. Johns from penalties for sexual harassment.

The suit states that St. Johns created an “unchecked intimidating, hostile, and offensive work environment on the set of Criminal Minds.” Over the course of time, the suit alleges, St. Johns fired at least a dozen men for either resisting or evading his advances. Furthermore, multiple other types of onsite harassment occurred, making the workplace actively hostile for much of the staff.

The suit also specifies that the named parties specifically aided and abetted this hostile work environment. Named parties include ABC Studios, Disney Studios, and multiple executive producers involved in the show, along with St. Johns himself. The state is pressing for both compensatory damages for those who were fired, along with punitive damages. Furthermore, the state wants an injunctive declaratory relief, or a defined legal statement that what occurred was unlawful and wrong.

This is one of the largest sexual harassment lawsuits in national history. The state is attempting to make an example, showing that sexual harassment will not be taken lightly. California has some of the most defined sexual harassment laws in the country; the Criminal Minds lawsuit is an attempt to enforce those laws at all levels of corporate and financial power. But what are those laws in the first place?

What Does California Define as Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment in the popular imagination is simple: a male boss to get his young female secretary to sleep with him. While that’s certainly one method of sexual harassment, there’s more to it. For conduct to be considered sexual harassment it must meet a few qualifications.

Sexual harassment must be:

  • Unwelcome Conduct: If the conduct is not unwelcome, then it by definition cannot be harassment. However, if someone else is watching it and made uncomfortable, then this third party may have grounds for a lawsuit.
  • Based on Gender: Sexual harassment doesn’t have to involve sexual ideas. If the conduct is occurring because of someone’s gender, then it is “sexual” harassment. That means that giving someone unpleasant tasks just because of their gender is just as much harassment as hitting on them would be.
  • Offensive to a Reasonable Person: This clause is in place to protect against frivolous lawsuits. For example, a reasonable person would not be offended at an employer providing free menstrual supplies in the bathroom. However, they might be offended if the employer made a point to deliver them in person in an embarrassing fashion. Context is important.
  • Severe or Pervasive: Finally, a single instance of mild discomfort is not enough to warrant a claim of sexual harassment. Instead, the event must be egregious or ongoing. One horrible event or many smaller events can both add up to a hostile environment.

These rules outline what’s needed for a hostile workplace lawsuit. That’s the claim against the Criminal Minds studios and producers. St. Johns himself, however, may have engaged in quid prop quo harassment, as well.

Quid Pro Quo vs. Hostile Work Environment

Quid pro quo means “something for something,” and it’s a very specific type of harassment. When a supervisor or other person with power uses that power to threaten an employee’s job unless they submit to sexual advances, that’s quid pro quo harassment. It specifically requires the power imbalance and the threat of “adverse employment action.” Otherwise, the harassment is considered part of a hostile work environment.

A hostile work environment is much broader. It can range from coworkers hanging explicit pictures in the workplace to bullying based on gender to active verbal harassment. As long as it meets the guidelines for sexual harassment, the workplace is considered hostile. If actions are not taken by the employer when the matter is brought to their attention, then the victim has standing for a hostile work environment suit.

Damages for either quid prop quo or hostile work environment lawsuits can vary. In general, they include compensatory damages for the time the employee was out of work. They also typically include punitive damages, as a method of deterring other companies from ignoring the law. Employees who have already filed complaints with their company and seen no results should file a complaint with the DFEH. The state will take the investigation from there.

Sexual harassment cannot and should not be taken lightly in California. The Criminal Minds suit is the first step to ensuring that even people in positions of power are held accountable. All employees deserve fair, equitable, and safe work environments. California's sexual harassment law is designed to help achieve that goal for everyone. If you have been the target of harassment on the job, we can help. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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