Police Department Settles Sexual Harassment Suit

In California, the Concord Police Department recently settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against its highest-ranking female officer. Under the settlement, the police department will pay $150,000 to the plaintiff, Wendy Schwartzenberger.

In the lawsuit, Schwartzenberger alleged that Lt. Robin Heinemann repeatedly made sexual comments and unwanted physical advances-including kissing and hugging-to her. In addition, Schwartzenberger said that Heinemann made inflammatory comments about her sexual orientation.

This lawsuit is the latest in a series of five sexual harassment, discrimination and retribution lawsuits involving the Concord Police Department. Heinemann herself received a $150,000 settlement last year after filing a lawsuit claiming that she had been passed over for promotion because of her gender. She also shared a $1.25 million settlement with seven other women who sued the department in 1998 for sexual harassment.

California Law on Sexual Harassment

Regardless of the size of the employer, all California employees are protected against sexual harassment by the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). In addition to sexual harassment, FEHA also protects against harassment based on pregnancy, childbirth or other medical conditions, even if the harasser is the same gender as the accuser.

Although the list is not exhaustive, the most commonly encountered examples of sexual harassment FEHA prohibits are:

  • Degrading or sexual comments about a person's body or other sexually explicit communications or jokes
  • Unwelcome sexual remarks or acts
  • Threatened or actual retaliation
  • Exhibiting sexually suggestive images, objects or gestures
  • Unwanted contact or suggestive looks
  • Denial of promotions based on gender or unwillingness to engage in sexual favors

Under FEHA, employers and employees, both in a supervisory and non-supervisory capacity, can be personally liable to the victim for harassing or aiding harassment of the victim.

In addition to the harasser, the employer can be held liable in certain situations. FEHA requires employers to "take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring." If it can be shown that the employer failed to do this, the victim of harassment can also collect damages from the employer.

Sexual harassment can come in many forms and is not always clear-cut. If you believe that you have been the victim of sexual harassment, contact an experienced employment law attorney. An attorney can advise you about your individual situation and help you proceed with all available means of legal recourse.