Sexual Harassment in Professional Relationships Outside of the Traditional Employment Relationship

As the reckoning of the #MeToo movement continues to make headlines, the public continues to learn about the and strengths and limits of the law. It was recently reported that portions of actress Ashley Judd’s sexual harassment lawsuit against producer Harvey Weinstein had been thrown out. In light of the many women who have accused Weinstein of reprehensible behavior, this wasn’t welcome news.

But though Judd didn’t win on this count, there is still a silver lining for women and men who decide to bring suits against their harassers in the future.

What makes Judd’s case somewhat unique is that she filed her claim, not based on a conventional employment relationship, but on sexual harassment occurring in a “professional relationship” (i.e. the relationship between producer and actress). The harassment allegedly occurred in a hotel room, where a business meeting was scheduled to take place, as opposed to an office. 

This article was written to briefly discuss Judd’s lawsuit against Weinstein as an illustration of harassment law in California, particularly the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which deals with professional relationships. Those who deal with professional relationships outside of a conventional workplace might find particular interest in this post.

If you believe you’ve suffered harassment related to a professional relationship, contact our office to discuss your case. 

Judd’s Lawsuit, The Basics

Ashley Judd’s lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein was first reported on in Spring of 2018. The alleged harassment had occurred back in the mid 1990s. She claimed that she had met with Weinstein in a private hotel room in Beverly Hills to discuss potential film roles and to “build her professional profile.” But Weinstein appeared for this meeting in a bathrobe, asked if she would watch him take a shower, and asked for a massage. Judd said she refused his requests and fled the room.

A year after the alleged incident, Judd was being considered for a role in the Peter Jackson helmed Lord of the Rings trilogy, but didn’t get the part. In 2017, Jackson publicly stated that Weinstein had told him not to hire Judd for the Lord of the Rings part because she was a “nightmare to work with.” Jackson further stated “I now suspect we were fed false information.” As a direct result of this information, Jackson said Judd’s name was removed from the casting list.

After Jackson’s public revelation, Judd sued Weinstein alleging defamation and sexual harassment in professional relationships. While the judge considering the case allowed the defamation portion of Judd’s case to proceed, the sexual harassment portion was thrown out. The reason? The section of law Judd and her attorney sued under did not cover professional relationships in the film industry at the time. Though the law was amended in 2018, the court ruled it could not be applied retroactively. Judge Phillip Gutierrez stated however that his ruling didn’t mean Judd wasn’t harassed. He wrote:

“The Court makes clear that it is notdetermining whether Plaintiff was sexually harassed in the colloquial sense of the term. The only question presented by the current motion is whether the harassment that Plaintiff allegedly suffered falls within the scope of the California statute that she has sued under.”

Though Judd’s harassment claim was thrown out, Weinstein faces a charge of rape in a separate case. 

Sexual Harassment from Professionals Under the Unruh Civil Rights Act | Branigan Robertson

What the Law Says About Professional Relationships

The specific code sited in Judd’s case is California Civil Code § 51.9. The Unruh Civil Rights Act was designed to prevent sexual harassment in relationships taking place outside of the conventional workplace environment. The types of relationships covered prior to 2018 did not include producers or directors, however, this has changed. 

The law states that harassers, including producers and directors, can be held liable if the plaintiff can prove a number of elements, including:

“There is a business, service, or professional relationship with the plaintiff and defendant or the defendant holds himself or herself out as being able to help the plaintiff establish a business, service, or professional relationship with the defendant or a third party.”

The specific professionals listed under this section of law include:

  • Physician
  • Psychotherapist
  • Dentist
  • Attorney
  • Social Worker
  • Real Estate Agent
  • Real Estate Appraiser
  • Investor
  • Accountant
  • Banker
  • Trust officer
  • Financial Planner
  • Loan officer
  • Collection Service
  • Building Contractor
  • Escrow Loan Officer
  • Executor
  • Trustee
  • Administrator
  • Landlord
  • Property Manager
  • Teacher
  • Elected Official
  • Lobbyist
  • Director or Producer

The law also includes any relationship that is substantially similar to those listed above.

What Constitutes Harassment Under The Unruh Civil Rights Act? 

Section 51.9 of the civil code lays out specifically what constitutes harassment. The law states:

“The defendant has made sexual advances, solicitations, sexual requests, demands for sexual compliance by the plaintiff, or engaged in other verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature or of a hostile nature based on gender, that were unwelcome and pervasive or severe.”

When Should You Contact an Attorney?

When a person experiences harassment in a conventional workplace, it’s often easier to know when to contact an attorney. Often, a person will seek legal help after they’ve been fired, or when the harassed employee has had enough and picks up the phone. However, in cases involving professional relationships where a company isn’t directly involved, there often isn’t an employment agreement in place.  This is why if you have questions, you should ask an attorney.

The office of Branigan Robertson generally takes cases on a contingency basis, which means the client doesn’t pay out of pocket expenses. Rather, the attorney is paid with a portion of the final settlement. Robertson’s office also provides free consultations.

If you have questions about professional relationships or sexual harassment, contact the office of Branigan Robertson, and find out how he can help.

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