AALRR Helps Client Defeat Sexual Harassment Claims at Trial and on Appeal
On January 22, 2020, the California Court of Appeal published its decision in Schmidt, et al., v. Superior Court for the State of California, County of Ventura. The appellate decision affirmed a victory for an AALRR client after a 20-day bench trial in which the trial judge ruled that two female court employees were not sexually harassed by a third-party security guard who screened employees as they entered a court building. AALRR attorneys Nate Kowalski and Jorge Luna handled the case at trial and Jennifer Cantrell handled the appeal.
At trial, the two court employees alleged that the security guard, who was employed by a private company, sexually harassed them during the courthouse entry screening process. They alleged that the guard “wanded” them excessively and unnecessarily. They testified that the guard “often gave women a hard time” and others described him as a “creep” on a “power trip.” Additionally, one Plaintiff alleged that the guard once dumped the contents of her bag, took out her sewing kit, and refused to let her enter the building with sewing scissors.
During the bench trial, Plaintiffs presented several “me too” witnesses in an attempt to corroborate their experiences with the security guard. “Me too” testimony is evidence of harassment or discrimination experienced by employees other than the Plaintiffs. Using “me too” witnesses is becoming a popular strategy at trial as the rate of sexual harassment suits continues to rise. In this case, the trial judge accepted into evidence all of Plaintiffs’ “me too” witness testimony. However, the trial judge ultimately placed little to no weight on the “me too” testimonies based on witness credibility concerns. For example, with respect to one of the Plaintiffs, the trial judge determined that her “testimony was plagued by many material inconsistencies [as] pointed out on cross examination.” Four other “me too” witnesses were determined to lack credibility for various reasons, including video evidence that directly contradicted the descriptions of events they provided. Additionally, it was revealed on cross-examination that these “me too” witnesses did not actually see the security guard wand women inappropriately.
In this case, the Superior Court was able to successfully defend itself at trial because it took steps contemporaneously to address the situation. After receiving a complaint regarding the security guard, the Superior Court promptly launched a thorough investigation. The investigation included reviewing weeks of video footage and interviewing Plaintiffs and several other witnesses. Ultimately, the investigation determined that Plaintiffs’ complaints were unfounded, primarily because the video footage did not corroborate the assertions made by the complainants.
Following the bench trial, in a detailed 80-page decision, the trial judge determined that Plaintiffs failed to establish that sexual harassment had occurred and ruled in the Superior Court’s favor. The trial judge noted that the video evidence “clearly refutes” Plaintiffs’ claims. The Court of Appeal agreed. Moreover, the Court of Appeal confirmed that the trial judge had properly addressed “me too” testimonies by admitting the evidence and then determining that the witnesses lacked credibility. The Court of Appeal further explained that the trial judge was in the best position to fairly evaluate the credibility of each witness and the relevance of the testimony. The Court of Appeal ultimately affirmed the trial judge’s decision in full.
There are a couple lessons that can be drawn from this case. First, an employer should perform a timely and thorough investigation. The extensive efforts taken by the Superior Court to look into Plaintiffs’ claims strengthened the conclusion that no harassment had occurred. Second, video evidence, if available, can be extremely valuable in addressing claims of sexual harassment. The Superior Court carefully reviewed and preserved the pertinent video evidence. The video evidence, or lack thereof, was critical at both the trial and appellate level in evaluating witness credibility and undercutting Plaintiffs’ allegations.
This AALRR publication is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. The firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process.
© 2020 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo