Can an Intern Sue for Workplace Sexual Harassment?
| Read Time: 3 minutes | Sexual Harassment

Yes. Full stop. If you are an unpaid intern in any workplace in this state, don’t let anyone tell you that California law does not protect unpaid interns against sexual harassment. It’s simply not true. For interns, the law in California protects them from workplace harassment at the same level as traditional employees. Our experienced Los Angeles sexual harassment attorneys at King & Siegel LLP can ensure that workplace harassers respect your rights and pay for the harm they have caused. With our advocacy, we win awards, and we win cases. You can contact us today to set up a free consultation.

Has California Law Always Protected Interns from Harassment?

Unfortunately, no. On September 9, 2014, the Governor approved AB 1443. This legislation extended anti-discrimination provisions of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to unpaid interns and other types of unpaid workers. 

What Rights Under FEHA Are Now Available to Interns?

With the 2014 change to FEHA, interns and unpaid workers now have the right to take legal action against an employer if any of the following behavior occurs:

  • Workplace discrimination based on a protected characteristic such as sex, color, religion, race, nationality, creed, age, disability, medical condition, veteran status, gender identity, marital status, genetics, or military status;
  • Retaliation against a worker who asserts their rights under FEHA; and
  • Harassment based on a protected characteristic. 

To initiate a legal action based on any of the above-listed violations, an intern would typically have to prove that their employer has at least five employees. However, an intern (or anyone with rights under FEHA) can file a sexual harassment claim even if their employer has only one employee. 

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct based on someone’s sex or gender. Harassment can affect everyone at the office or worksite, so you could have a right to make a harassment claim even if you were not the target of harassing behavior. This type of misconduct comes in two forms: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employer or supervisor demands that an intern or employee accept unwanted, sex-based behavior to receive work benefits or to avoid punishment. When committing quid pro quo harassment, a harasser might try to entice an intern with a promotion or threaten negative reviews or termination if the intern does not give in to sexual advances or tolerate sex-based misconduct. 

Hostile Work Environment Harassment

Workers might be less familiar with hostile work environment harassment, but it is just as unlawful and harmful. Hostile work environment harassment occurs when someone in the workplace engages in unwelcome, sex-based misconduct that is so pervasive or so severe that a reasonable person would call the workplace hostile, intimidating, or abusive. To prove their case, an intern might have to prove that there were multiple instances of unwelcome conduct unless a single incident was extreme. 

Examples of Harassment

Cases differ from person to person, but having examples of harassment can help you identify it in your workplace. You might be a victim of harassment if you have experienced the following at work:

  • Unwanted requests for dates,
  • Sexually explicit conversations,
  • Non-consensual touching,
  • Comments about body parts or appearance,
  • Staring,
  • Invasions of personal space,
  • Insulting or stereotyping comments based on sex or gender,
  • A request for a romantic encounter in exchange for work benefits,
  • Graphic gestures,
  • A display of explicit material, 
  • Questioning about sex or gender expression, or
  • Being excluded because of sex or gender.

At the first sign of harassment, you can speak to one of our knowledgeable employment attorneys for protection and help filing a complaint. 

Filing a Harassment Complaint

You can assert your rights as an intern by filing a complaint with the California Civil Rights Department or a lawsuit in court. You have three years to complain.

For harassment victims who are interns, the law in California for sexual harassment provides several remedies. Since they don’t receive wages, an unpaid intern does not have access to lost pay in a harassment claim, but they do have access to the following

  • Out-of-pocket expenses,
  • Job reinstatement,
  • Being promoted or hired, 
  • Policy changes in the workplace, 
  • Punitive damages,
  • Compensation for emotional distress, 
  • Training,
  • Reasonable accommodations, and 
  • Legal costs.

Strong evidence and good arguments are crucial to maximizing your relief in a harassment case. At King & Siegel LLP, our attorneys are highly experienced and have received the best training nationwide, so we know how to win top results for mistreated workers. 

Let King & Siegel LLP Win for You

You deserve respect at every stage of your career, and our attorneys at King & Siegel LLP can ensure you receive it. Our award-winning attorneys are trained at top law schools and firms across the nation. We are also assertive and compassionate advocates who have obtained millions for workers in California. Please contact us if you need help. You can reach us on our website or call us to schedule a free consultation.  

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Julian Burns King graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and founded King & Siegel in 2018. As head of the Firm’s discrimination and harassment practice areas, she champions the rights of working parents and victims of workplace discrimination and harassment. She has been recognized as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers annually since 2018 and has recovered tens of millions of dollars on behalf of her clients.

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