Sexual Harassment

Court Holds Employer Can Terminate for Unactionable Sexual Harassment

A recent California case from 2019, LaForce v. Credit Bureau of Napa County, Inc., held that an employer can terminate an employee for actions that violate the company’s standard of conduct even if the employee’s actions do not violate the law. Through sexual harassment training for employers, they can ensure that their employees are trained on conduct that would violate the law as well as specific company standards that may hold employees to a standard above what is legally required.

Jesse LaForce worked as a collection manager in the Sonoma office for Chase Receivables, Inc., a “DBA” of Credit Bureau of Napa County, Inc. He filed suit in response to his termination for sexual harassment and insubordination, which he claims were pretexts for discrimination.

LaForce claimed that in June 2015, a young female coworker, R.V., made an advance at him while on the call center floor, and that he responded by telling her that he was celibate because of his religious beliefs. He alleged that later that day in the lunch room, R.V. repeatedly implied that she was single by asking if he saw a ring on her finger and made him uncomfortable.

R.V. claimed that she and LaForce, her supervisor and nearly twenty years her senior, had a conversation in the break room regarding LaForce’s religious involvement. She told the Sonoma office human resources assistant that LaForce gave an uncomfortable level of detail regarding his marriage and celibacy. That colleague reported the conversation to the vice president of human resources, Amy Anania.

After the colleague reported R.V. and LaForce’s conversation, Anania interviewed both individuals. LaForce called himself “an open book” regarding his celibacy. Anania told him that because he had recently attended sexual harassment training, he should already know that such a discussion was inappropriate. Multiple times during the conversation, LaForce ordered Anania not to cut him off. Anania asked LaForce to keep the discussion confidential, but later learned that immediately after the conversation LaForce spoke to two of his managers regarding the investigation.

In a second interview with Anania, R.V. agreed that she had shared information about her boyfriend with LaForce and added that LaForce demanded that she look him in the eyes while he told her about the length of his celibacy.

Anania concluded that LaForce’s judgment, particularly regarding sexual harassment, was cause for concern. Coupled with insubordination during and after the telephone interview, his behavior merited immediate termination.

LaForce contended that the reasons he was given for his termination—insubordination and violating company policy against sexual harassment—were pretexts for religious discrimination. He noted that he had been reprimanded for religious conversations with coworkers before, and that he had interpreted R.V.’s comments as a request for spiritual guidance on her sex life. The court rejected this, holding that discussing sex in the context of religion was still discussing sex—which means that his comments still violated the employee standard of conduct.

LaForce argued that his sexually harassing actions did not rise to an actionable level under California law. The court rejected this argument because it was not necessary to address. An employer is free to hold a standard of conduct above what is legally required, and he was terminated for violating that code of conduct—not for committing an actionable offense.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Credit Bureau, and the appellate court affirmed the decision.

Beginning in 2020, California sexual harassment training will be required of employers with five or more employees. As part of this training, employers can train their employees on the standard of conduct expected of them during their employment. LaForce v. Credit Bureau demonstrates that sexual harassment training should include instruction on what constitutes harassment that violates both company policy and the law.

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