New Law Protects California Workers From Defamation Claims When Reporting Sexual Harassment or Discrimination

Workers experiencing sexual harassment or discrimination often fear speaking up due to potential repercussions. They may face various forms of retaliation, such as unwarranted disciplinary action, negative performance reviews, pay cuts, termination, exclusion from company meetings, or having rumors spread about themselves.

In some cases, harassers or employers retaliate by accusing an employee who files a sexual harassment or discrimination complaint of defamation. Defamation occurs when someone makes false oral or written statements that harm a person’s reputation.

Workplace defamation can manifest in different ways, often making an already unpleasant situation worse for the worker. For instance, if an employer falsely accuses an employee of fabricating allegations of sexual harassment, it not only undermines the worker’s credibility but also perpetuates a culture of silence and impunity in the workplace.

A new law, Assembly Bill 933, aims to better protect workers who report incidents of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination from defamation claims. Signed into law in October 2023, the bill strengthens California’s defamation and retaliation protections for workers who speak up about workplace misconduct they have experienced. It went into effect on January 1, 2024.

Under existing California law, certain communications qualify as “privileged.” The person who makes the privileged statements is shielded from defamation claims of slander and libel even when the statements can potentially damage an individual’s reputation. For example, statements made during litigation and while testifying at trials are considered privileged communications.

AB 933 provides further protection by broadening how privileged communication is defined in defamation cases. The bill applies to statements made about a person’s own experience of sexual harassment or discrimination, including workplace harassment. When a worker reports sexual harassment to an employer with credible evidence, the communication is privileged. Additionally, communications between the employer and individuals linked to the sexual harassment complaint cannot form the basis for a claim of slander or libel.

Communications regarding the above incidents must satisfy several requirements to be considered privileged. Firstly, they must be made “without malice” and concern facts related to incidents of sexual harassment or discrimination. They must also be made by an individual who has experienced the sexual harassment or discrimination being reported. AB 933 protects workers regardless of whether they file an actual complaint about the misconduct.

In most cases, defendants who win defamation lawsuits cannot obtain attorneys’ fees. However, under AB 933, defendants who prevail can recover attorney’s fees and seek treble damages and punitive damages from the accuser who brought the suit.

The new law removes the threat of retaliatory defamation claims for workers who complain about discrimination or sexual harassment. Workers are now empowered to defend themselves against baseless allegations of defamation or frivolous claims brought by those accused of workplace misconduct. Employers should inform employees about AB 933 to encourage reporting of discrimination or sexual harassment without fear of retaliation. Workers should also be aware of their rights.

If you are being accused of defamation or if someone has made defamatory statements about you, reach out to an experienced attorney. Erlich Law Firm is dedicated to advocating for workers. We will investigate your defamation claim and protect your rights. Our Oakland employment lawyers understand the nuances of workplace defamation cases and will handle your claim with sensitivity and diligence.

Defamation can cause lasting harm, including emotional distress, damage to professional relationships, and loss of employment. Employers are responsible for ensuring they maintain safe and fair work environments. When they fail to address workplace misconduct or engage in unfair treatment against a worker, they can be held accountable.

Erlich Law Firm has experience handling all types of employment disputes for our clients and achieving successful outcomes. In addition to defamation, our practice areas include sexual harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination, unpaid wage and hour violations and more. We are available to answer your questions and help you understand your legal options. Contact us today for a free consultation to learn more.

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