Knee, Ross & Silverman Secures Unanimous California Supreme Court Affirmation of Defense Victory in Sexual Harassment Case

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Los Angeles-based employment defense boutique firm prevails in case of first impression regarding what constitutes sexual harassment under Section 51.9 of California Civil Code.

failed to establish the severe or pervasive conduct

In a case of first impression before the California Supreme Court, Knee, Ross & Silverman secured a unanimous decision for its client in defending an appeal of their summary judgment victory in a closely watched sexual harassment lawsuit.

The case, Hughes v. Pair (Case No. S157197), was the first one heard by the State's highest court that defined what constitutes sexual harassment under California Civil Code Section 51.9. This is an important but largely unknown code section that extends sexual harassment protections previously only available to employees under both federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and California law (the Fair Employment and Housing Act) to business and professional relationships, such as those between financial advisors, real estate agents, trustees, doctors, attorneys, and many other kinds of service providers and their clients.

In the case, Suzan Hughes, the ex-wife of the late Mark Hughes - the founder of Herbalife who was divorced from Ms. Hughes in 1998 and passed away suddenly in 2000 - sued Christopher Pair, a colleague and friend of Mr. Hughes who was one of three trustees of a $350 million trust that Mr. Hughes left behind for the sole benefit of the couple's minor son. Ms. Hughes claimed that Mr. Pair made sexually offensive comments to her in a conversation that was alleged to have occurred in the summer of 2005, basing her lawsuit on Section 51.9 of the California Civil Code and asserting that she was sexually harassed by Mr. Pair in his role as one of three trustees of the trust that financially supports Ms. Hughes' son. Mr. Pair has consistently denied Ms. Hughes' allegations.

Led by Melanie Ross, partner at Knee, Ross & Silverman, Mr. Pair's defense team won a summary judgment at the Los Angeles County trial court level on the grounds that the sexual harassment allegations "failed to establish the severe or pervasive conduct" necessary to constitute a claim of sexual harassment. The State Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in a split decision and the California Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court in a unanimous decision.

"In a case of first impression defining what constitutes sexual harassment under Section 51.9 of the California Civil Code, the Supreme Court's decision held that the same standards used to analyze sexual harassment claims in the employment context under FEHA and Title VII apply to business professionals and their clients under Section 51.9," said Ross. "In addition, the Court ruled that isolated or occasional verbal comments - even if vulgar or subjectively offensive - will not result in liability for sexual harassment against business professionals."

The law firm of Knee, Ross & Silverman, LLP specializes exclusively in all areas of public and private sector labor and employment law. The firm's practice is devoted to defending companies and their owners, managers and supervisors in civil lawsuits filed in state and federal court by employees or former employees, advising company owners and executives about personnel and payroll procedures, and assisting companies with labor union relationships. For more information about Knee, Ross & Silverman, LLP, please visit http://www.krsllp.com or call 310.551.0909 x 327.

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Melanie Ross
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