A text from a supervisor late at night is usually bad news. And in this case, we could not agree more.

With California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, employers are usually liable for a supervisor’s harassment. This left employers with a minimum of recourse when supervisors misbehaved, but a recently published court decision begs to differ. In Atalla v. Rite Aid Corporation, 2023, the court established limits to which employers are responsible for conduct stemming from employees’ personal relationships and after-hours contact.

Hanin, a pharmacist, sued Rite Aid alleging Erik, a district manager, had sexually harassed her. Hanin’s claim stemmed from a series of late-night text messages which included an inappropriately intimate video of Eric. Rite Aid did not dispute Eric had sent the explicit communications, but maintained it was not liable for harassment because Eric was not acting as a supervisor. But wait, more detail to follow! The court granted summary judgment to Rite Aid on Hanin’s harassment claim, and she appealed.

The Court of Appeal upheld the judgment for Rite Aid because it agreed the alleged harassment occurred when Eric was not working as a supervisor. The Court’s decision was inspired by evidence demonstrating a personal relationship between Hanin and Eric predating their work relationship.

Hanin testified this relationship with Eric “was unconnected to her work” at Rite Aid. There was evidence establishing both before and after Eric and Hanin worked together, they “texted about a range of topics, frequently, concerning family, vacations, dining, exercise, as well as chit chat about work.” They also “regularly met for coffee and lunch and were acquainted with each other’s spouses.”

As for the texts, the Court concluded it was not work-related and could not support a harassment claim. The Court noted Eric sent the video while intoxicated at a hotel one evening and Hanin received the texts at home.

Although Hanin argued Eric’s explicit video followed a discussion about work, the court explained Rite Aid was not strictly liable because the company demonstrated the harassment occurred outside of work and Hanin was a “willing participant” in the friendship existing before employment.

While this new ruling provides protection for companies when employees engage in personal conduct unrelated to work, employers can still face liability for actions by their supervisors. Employers should consult with counsel regarding training to ensure supervisors’ work-related conduct does not result in liability.

The information and opinions expressed are for educational purposes only and are based on current practice, industry related knowledge and business expertise. The information provided shall not be construed as legal advice, express or implied.