What is the legal definition of "harassment" in California? (2023)

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What is the legal definition of "harassment" in California? (1)

In California there is4 main types of harassment, each with its own legal definition:

  1. civil harassment,
  2. Stalking,
  3. sexual harassment, And
  4. workplace harassment.

Broadly speaking, each of these includesunwanted behaviorthat's eithersevere or pervasive. Some behaviors may fall into more than one type of harassment. Harassment can even amount to apunishable act.

What is the legal definition of harassment in California?

Generally theLegal definition of harassmentin California is the behaviorundesirable, and that's eithersevere or pervasive. There is however4 specific types of harassmentwhich the law recognizes. Each has their own legal definition of what constitutes harassment.

The4 The typeharassment are:

(Video) What are the harassment laws in the state of California?

  1. civil harassment,
  2. Stalking,
  3. sexual harassment in the workplace and
  4. non-sexual harassment in the workplace.

Depending on the circumstances, the harassing behavior can reach the level of a criminal offense.

people who have beenaccused of molesting someoneor who believe they have been harassed should strongly consider contacting an attorney as civil and even criminal liability may exist.

Civil Harassment Act

California'scivil harassmentLaw,California Code of Civil Procedure Section 527.6 CCP, has its own legal definition of harassment. Under this law, harassment is any of the following:

  • unlawful violence such as
    • Bodily harm (StGB 240 StGB),
    • Battery (Penal Code 242 PC), or
    • stalking (penal code 646.9 PC);
  • a credible threat of violence, or
  • a behavior that:
    • is knowing and willing
    • addressed to a specific person
    • seriously upsets, annoys or harasses that person,
    • serves no legitimate purpose
    • would cause significant emotional distress to a reasonable person, and
    • actually causes significant emotional distress to the person.1

Acredible threat of violenceis any knowingly and intentionally utterance or action which would cause fear in a reasonable person

  • his safety or
  • the safety of his family.

It must also serveno legitimate purpose.2

Abehavioris a series or pattern of actions over a period of time showing intent to harass someone. The period can be short or long. These actions may include:

  • follow or pursue someone
  • make harassing calls,
  • Sending harassing messages, whether through email, text messages, social media or any other means.3

However, constitutionallyprotected activities, like political speeches, are not included.4The law does not apply to eitherrelationships that are close. These are usually includeddomestic violencelaws or stalking.

Victims of conduct that falls within this legal definition of harassment may: ainterim disposal(TRO). This order prompts the subject to stop the harassing behavior. If the subject of the TRO continues to harass the victim, it may amount to a crimeBreach of an Injunction (Penal Code 273.6 PC).


California law doesn'tStalkinghas its own legal definition of harassment. Under state law, stalking has 2 elements:

(Video) California Law Definition of Harassment

  1. the accused intentionally and maliciously harassed or repeatedly followed another person, and
  2. the defendant has made a credible threat with intent to cause the other person to have reasonable fears for their safety or the safety of their immediate family members.5

To establish harassment under the Stalking Act, abehavior. For that you needtwo or more acts that indicate an ongoing purpose.6The course of behavior must continueno legitimate purpose.7

to totalharassment, the behavior must be directed at a specific person and seriously:

  • bother
  • Alarm,
  • torment, or
  • terrorize them.8

stalking is acrimein California. In some cases it can be acrimethat means more than a year in prison.

Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environments

Conforming to federal labor laws and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)sexual harassmenthas its own legal definition of what constitutes harassment.

In this context,sexual harassmentcan take 2 forms:

  1. harassment for what?, And
  2. Ahostile work environment.9

Quid pro quo sexual harassmenthappens when a manager requests sexual favors for a job accomplishment.10

There arefive elements for a valid claimfor sexual harassment in return:

  1. the victim worked for the accused, applied for a job with the accused, or rendered services to the accused,
  2. a supervisor or other representative of the accused has made unwanted sexual advances or other behavior,
  3. that favorable working conditions were made dependent on these sexual advances, whether by words or hints,
  4. the worker was harmed by the harassment, and
  5. The manager's actions were a major factor in this damage.11

Unwanted behavior may also violate sexual harassment laws if it results in ahostile work environment. This can happen when:

  • an employee receives unwanted sexual advances, derogatory comments, insults or offensive behavior,
  • these unwanted actions are based on his or her gender, and
  • the actions are either serious or far-reaching enough to change the conditions of employment.12

In many cases, the harassment has to happen multiple times for it to be pervasive enough. However, single incidents of serious behavior, such as sexual assault in the workplace, can suffice.

(Video) Criminal Harassment and Consequences

Victims of workplace harassment can: aDiscrimination complaintagainst their employer and their harassing manager or colleague.

Non-Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Harassment in the workplace does not have to be sexual in nature. The legal definition ofworkplace harassmentin the state of California also includes:

  • race,
  • Religion,
  • national origin,
  • sexual orientation,
  • gender identity or gender expression,
  • Diseases,
  • disability,
  • Alter,
  • veteran status and
  • other protected characteristics.13

To be non-sexual harassment, the conduct must still asomething for somethingor create onehostile work environment. The vast majority of these non-sexual harassment cases involve hostile work environments.

What are the penalties for harassment?

The penalties for harassmentdepend on the context. In some cases it may be a criminal offence. In other cases, the harasser can be sued and have to pay damages. The employer can also be sued in the workplace.

Accused of harassing another person according to the definition provided by Californiacivil harassment lawcan be subjected to ainterim disposal. These arecourt ordersprohibiting the subject from harassing the alleged victim. They often require that the subject:

  • stay away from the protected party,
  • not communicate with the protected party, and
  • Do not go near the protected party's place of work, home, or school.

It may also require the subjectdo not hand over firearmsin his possession. Other terms and conditions are also common.

ACivil Harassment Ordercan take up to 5 years.14

If the person concerned violates the injunction, it is a criminal offense. In general, it is oneoffensethat carries up to:

  • $10,000 in fines and/or
  • 1 year in county jail.15

However, the offense awobblerif it:

(Video) Workplace Harassment in California -- When can I sue?

  • is the second offense of the subject, and
  • involved in an act of violence.16

Prosecutors have discretion to prosecute wobblers as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Criminal prosecution results in a conviction of up to:

  • $10,000 in fines and/or
  • 3 years in state prison.

Under California lawStalkingis also punished as a crime. Like certain restraining order violations, stalking is a loose connection.

When prosecutors bring misdemeanor charges, a conviction results in:

  • $1,000 fine,
  • 1 year in county jail and/or
  • Offense (summary) Probation.17

When submitted as a felony, the penalties of a conviction escalate:

  • $1,000 fine,
  • 5 years in state prison
  • Crime (formal) probation.18

Stalking is a criminal offense whenever either:

  • the act of stalking has also violated a temporary or protective order, or
  • the defendant has a criminal record for stalking, even if the alleged victims are not the same person.19

Forworkplace harassment, whether sexual or not, the penalties are civil: the victim can sue both their molester and the employer for molestation. These harassment claims would seek compensation for the victim's losses. In some cases, they can recoverpunitive damagesfor example, if the employer encourages the behavior or does not provide training on sexual harassment.

Legal Notice:

  1. California Code of Civil Procedure 527.6(b) CCP.
  2. California Code of Civil Procedure 527.6(b)(2) CCP.
  3. California Code of Civil Procedure 527.6(b)(1) CCP.
  4. The same thing.
  5. California Criminal Jury Instructions(CALCRIM) No. 1301.
  6. People vs Norman, 75 Cal.App.4th 1234 (1999).
  7. CALCRIM No. 1301.
  8. People vs Norman, above.
  9. See e.g.Holmes v Petrovich Development Co., 191 Cal.App.4th 1047 (2011).
  10. SeeMogilefsky v Supreme Court, 20 Cal.App.4th 1409 (1993).
  11. California Civil Jury Instructions(CACI) No. 2520.
  12. Hughes vs Pair, 46 Cal.4th 1035 (2009).
  13. See Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at 42 USC 2000e-2(a) andMiller v Correctional Facility, 36 Cal.4th 446 (2005).
  14. California Code of Civil Procedure 527.6 CCP.
  15. California Penal Code 273.6 PC.
  16. The same thing.
  17. California Penal Code 646.9 PC – Stalking.
  18. The same thing.
  19. The same thing.

About the author

What is the legal definition of "harassment" in California? (2)

Neil Shouse

Former Los Angeles District Attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He was featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr. Shouse was recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.

(Video) What counts as harassment and stalking? [Criminal law explainer]


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