Apply harassment rules no matter who’s accused

It’s not enough to have a sexual harassment policy. You had better be prepared to enforce it—no matter who is doing the harassing. In the following case, family ties cost a bundle for an employer that turned a blind eye to harassment.

Recent case: Maria Vargas worked as a paralegal for a small law firm established by attorney Gloria Martinez-Senftner.

Martinez-Senftner’s husband, James, often came to the office to perform management tasks when he was not working at his own job in another state.

Their son, Wayne, was also a fixture around the office, working as a courier for his mother. At the time Martinez-Senftner hired her son, he had criminal charges pending against him, including sexual battery.

Vargas complained to co-workers that James and Wayne sexually harassed her by grabbing her buttocks, her breasts and other body parts.

She claimed that Wayne discussed his sexual exploits, made inappropriate comments and printed out and shared pornographic photographs with other employees. Vargas also complained that while she and Wayne were driving to a business appointment, he flashed his penis at her while describing how he once drugged a woman and exposed himself.

When others outside the firm complained to Martinez-Senftner that Wayne hit on their employees when he made deliveries, she simply rolled her eyes and said, “That’s just Wayne.” She wasn’t worried about the pending criminal case against him because she believed he was innocent.

When Vargas complained to several people, she was fired, allegedly for “talking too much.” She sued, alleging sexual harassment.

A jury heard testimony from current and former employees, who confirmed some of the accusations. It awarded Vargas $368,000 plus almost $225,000 in attorneys’ fees. (Vargas v. Martinez-Senftner, No. C056198, Court of Appeal of California, 2010)