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Court Bars Some Harassment Suits

December 10, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Victims of sexual harassment by a co-worker can sue their employer for failing to intervene, but not the harasser, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The court said California law does not allow a harassment suit against a co-worker who was not the victim’s supervisor. The court did not address whether a supervisor could be sued, although lower courts have allowed such suits.

The suit was filed by Maryann Carrisales, a warehouse supervisor at a state prison in Chino. She accused a fellow supervisor of physically and verbally harassing her between March and December 1994. Her lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections, which she says brushed off her complaints, is pending.

State law requires employers to take ``immediate and appropriate corrective action″ once they knew, or should have known, about sexual harassment between co-workers. The law also requires employers to take ``all reasonable steps″ to prevent harassment.

The ruling issued Thursday won’t affect damages available to victims who can show their employers failed to respond to complaints.

However, the lawyer for Carrisales said the ruling would leave some victims without anyone to sue.

If an employer learns about sexual harassment after the fact, and acts quickly to prevent a recurrence, then ``no matter how severe the harassment, if it’s by a co-worker there will be no recourse,″ said attorney William Quackenbush.

He said the ruling also weakens the law as a deterrent by eliminating the threat of damage suits against co-workers for harassment.

The court noted that harassers might still be sued on other grounds, such as assault or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Kathleen Slosuy, lawyer for the co-worker in the case, said the ruling should reduce harassment by making it clear to employers that they are the only ones who can be sued.

``It should put in place stricter or better policies from the employer,″ she said.

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