Work discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal in California
James Pearl was hired in 2002 by the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation. In 2006, he was promoted as a wastewater collection supervisor. In 2011, he was transferred to an office in Reseda. Pearl complained, alleging that it was retaliation for his complaint about a fellow worker’s misconduct. Pearl filed a discrimination complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
Several days after his complaint, Pearl was fired, allegedly for falsifying documents for a subordinate co-worker who was perceived by other co-workers as gay. Pearl again filed a complaint, this time for retaliation. He also fought his firing with the L.A. Board of Civil Service Commission, which later determined that his firing was unfounded. He was reinstated back to work 13 months after being fired.
Upon his reinstatement, Pearl was subjected to “rampant insults and slurs” because his bosses believed he was gay. He found objects at his desk suggestive of homosexual sex. Even though he was heterosexual, Pearl endured various demeaning comments, offensive posters and cartoons directed at his perceived sexual orientation by supervisors who have a long history of discriminating against homosexual employees. A Photoshopped image showing Pearl and another employee as homosexual lovers was apparently distributed citywide. Pearl suffered distress and collapsed at work. He, thereafter, went on medical leave.
He sued the employer for sexual orientation discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation. Pearl claimed damages for depression, hypertension, vertigo, weight loss, heart damage and emotional distress.
The employer argued that Pearl did not complain internally about the alleged mistreatment, that Pearl testified that he heard gay slurs in the workplace but did not know if they were directed at him, and that the images and comments Pearl was subjected to “were trivial and isolated.”
After several days of trial, the jury awarded the employee $15 million in past and future emotional distress damages and approximately $2.4 million in economic damages for lost wages and benefits. In addition, the Court awarded the employee another $1.55 million in prevailing-party attorney’s fees. The employer is appealing the verdict.
Unlike the usual sexual harassment case where the victim receives unwelcome sexual advances from another motivated by sexual desire, Pearl’s supervisors were not making sexual advances towards him. However, the supervisors were targeting Pearl’s sexual identity which they had misperceived as gay. Their conduct created a hostile work environment for the employee.
California law prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Such discrimination may occur when an employer discriminates against an employee because of the latter’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender orientation. However, the employee does not need to have that actual sex orientation to be able to sue. In other words, the law also protects heterosexuals discriminated against on the basis of mere perception of being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
Employees who are victims of sexual orientation discrimination may be entitled to wages and benefits lost due to wrongful termination; future loss of earnings; emotional distress damages for the mental pain and suffering caused by the employer’s illegal discrimination; and, in certain instances, punitive damages.
The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com or our Facebook page Joe Sayas Law. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is the recipient of PABA’s Community Champion Award for 2016.]
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