Employer not liable for supervisor’s inappropriate texts to worker: California court

Rite Aid faces claims of sexual harassment, constructive termination, discrimination, retaliation

Employer not liable for supervisor’s inappropriate texts to worker: California court

The California Court of Appeal ruled in an employer’s favor upon determining that it was able to prove that the acts allegedly leading to sexual harassment arose from a completely private relationship with no relation to the employment.

The case of Atalla v. Rite Aid Corporation et al. arose when a supervisor texted the plaintiff, a Rite Aid employee, a video of himself masturbating and a photo of his penis. On Jan. 10, 2019, the plaintiff’s lawyer sent Rite Aid a letter making a sexual harassment claim and stating that the plaintiff would not be returning to work.

Read more: GE employee alleges supervisor sexually harassed her

The next day, Rite Aid’s in-house counsel spoke with the plaintiff’s lawyer and instructed a divisional HR leader to investigate the incident. The divisional HR leader met with the supervisor, who admitted sending the plaintiff the video and photo. The supervisor was suspended and was given a copy of Rite Aid’s anti-retaliation policy.

On Jan. 14, 2019, Rite Aid decided to terminate the supervisor. Rite Aid’s in-house counsel reached out to the plaintiff’s lawyer to say that the supervisor had been terminated, that the plaintiff was welcome to return to work, and that she could avail of mental health counseling and financial advice via the employee assistance program.

The plaintiff’s other lawyer said that the plaintiff had no plans of returning to work. Rite Aid’s in-house counsel concluded that the plaintiff decided to resign and to pursue litigation. On Jan. 22, 2019, Rite Aid sent the plaintiff a separation notice and her vacation payout.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against her former employer and the supervisor. She asked for punitive damages and made the following claims:

  • sexual harassment under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
  • failure to prevent sexual harassment under the FEHA
  • constructive termination in violation of public policy
  • hostile work environment under the FEHA
  • discrimination under the FEHA
  • retaliation under the FEHA
  • intentional infliction of emotional distress
  • negligent infliction of emotional distress

Rite Aid filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court ruled in its favor. It found that Rite Aid was entitled to summary judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s claims of sexual harassment, constructive termination, discrimination, retaliation, and punitive damages.

The trial court made the following findings. The plaintiff and her supervisor were friends who had frequent, familiar, candid, and wide-ranging interactions. They texted extensively about work, family, vacations, food, alcohol, people, pets, and exercise. They met for coffee, meals, and holiday and birthday dinners.

The text exchange leading to the inappropriate photo and video occurred outside the workplace and beyond work hours, the trial court found.

Court of Appeal sides with Rite Aid

The California Court of Appeal for the Fifth District affirmed the trial court’s decision. First, the appellate court ruled that a trial regarding the sexual harassment claims was unnecessary since there was no material factual issue on the question of whether the inappropriate texts were work-related.

As the appellate court explained, the evidence did not support that the text messages leading to the inappropriate photo and video were work-related such that the sender was acting in his capacity as a supervisor.

The appellate court noted that the plaintiff and her supervisor both said that they had a close friendship before and after the plaintiff worked in a pharmacy intern position at Rite Aid. The plaintiff admitted that the preexisting relationship had no connection to her work at Rite Aid.

Next, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that the plaintiff chose to resign and was not constructively terminated. Rite Aid did not intentionally create or knowingly permit intolerable working conditions that left the plaintiff with no choice except to resign, the appellate court held.

Instead, Rite Aid took immediate steps to remedy the situation, including by investigating the incident, firing the supervisor, telling the plaintiff’s lawyers about the supervisor’s termination, and inviting the plaintiff back to work, the appellate court said. The plaintiff admitted that she did not tell anyone at Rite Aid that she intended to return to work.

Recent articles & video

California minimum wage set to increase Jan. 1, 2024

How behavioral science can help HR improve the employee experience

How will the California ‘family caregiver’ bill affect HR?

Why are global wellbeing levels not improving?

Most Read Articles

With mental health costs on the rise, how should HR respond?

UAW strike expands to include more facilities around the country

Proposed employment bill would mean more post-pandemic rehires