California Supreme Court Rejects Sexual Harassment and Intentional Infliction Claims

The California Supreme Court decided a non-employment case that will have employment law ripple effects.

Suzan Hughes was the divorced widow of Mark Hughes, founder of Herbalife. Mark left a trust of $350 million to his son Alex. Suzan was Alex's guardian. One of the trustees was Christopher Pair, then CEO of Herbalife. The trustees and Suzan had a tumultuous relationship and much litigation. At one point, Pair apparently indicated interest in having a sexual relationship with Hughes. He made some offensive and crude remarks to her regarding his desires. He may have suggested that if she slept with him, he would approve an expenditure of $80,000 for a month's rental on a beach house in Malibu, for Alex (natch).

So, Hughes sued Pair under Civil Code section 51.9, which prohibits sexual harassment outside the employment context by certain vendors / suppliers in various professional business relationships, such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and trustees.

The lower courts and the Supreme Court agreed that the lewd and crude conduct was not sufficient to constitute "sexual harassment" To get there, the Supreme Court expressly held that harassment under 51.9 is analyzed exactly the same as under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (and Title VII). So, this case is relevant to employment. Of note, because harassment must be "pervasive" or "severe," it will be tough to prove a violation of section 51.9 based on occasional interactions with a covered business' employees. (Normally, one will interact in the workplace more frequently than with a third party.)

The Court also held that Hughes' claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress was barred because the alleged conduct was not sufficient extreme and outrageous, and because Hughes and not proved she suffered "severe" emotional distress.

The opinion is Hughes v. Pair and the opinion is here.