Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court dismissal of actor Ashley Judd’s sexual harassment claim against former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The Ninth Circuit opinion allows Judd’s sexual harassment claim to go forward. This decision illustrates how sexual harassment claims are not limited to standard employer/employee or service provider/client relationships.
Judd alleges that she was sexually harassed by Weinstein in 1996 or 1997, when she was starting her acting career and Weinstein was a powerful producer. Judd says Weinstein harassed her during a meeting intended to discuss potential acting opportunities. After she rejected his advances, Judd claims Weinstein prevented her from being cast in movies he produced. Notably, Judd alleges that Weinstein blocked her casting in The Lord of the Rings adaptations in retaliation. In fact, the reason Judd can bring her suit so many years after the usual statute of limitations has passed is because she says did not discover that Weinstein had been retaliating against her until Peter Jackson, who directed, produced, and wrote The Lord of the Rings films, gave an interview in 2017 about Weinstein’s actions against Judd. See , No. CV 18-5724 PSG (FFMx), 2018 WL 7448914, at *3-5 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 19, 2018). Judd was able to use California’s “discovery rule,” which is an exception to the general rules regarding statutes of limitation. Under the discovery rule, the statute of limitation begins to run not when the injury occurs, but instead when the plaintiff discovers or has reason to discover the cause of action. See No. CV 18-5724 PSG (FFMx), 2018 WL 7448914, at *4.
Among other claims, Judd sued Weinstein in April 2018 for sexual harassment in a professional relationship under California Civil Code Section 51.9. While allowing her other claims to go forward, the United States District Court of the Central District of California dismissed Judd’s sexual harassment claim because it believed Judd and Weinstein did not have the requisite type of professional relationship described in section 51.9.
Section 51.9 is part of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits business discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and other characteristics. Section 51.9 specifically prohibits sexual harassment in a variety of business relationships outside the workplace. Over the years, section 51.9 has been amended to specifically cover producer/actor relationships. However, because the alleged harassment occurred in 1996 or 1997, the court clarifies that it must use the 1996 version of section 51.9.
In 1996, as the Ninth Circuit explains, the law required the plaintiff to have a certain type of business, service, or professional relationship with the defendant. The 1996 statute listed examples of the types of professional relationships covered by the law, including those between plaintiffs and physicians, attorneys, social workers, accountants, teachers, real estate agents, landlords, and other specific professions. The statute also covered relationships, “substantially similar to any of the above.” Because the relationship between an actor and a producer was not specifically enumerated in the statute, Judd argued that her professional relationship with Weinstein was substantially similar to those listed. The district court disagreed, holding that the defining characteristic of the enumerated relationships was that they were all between service providers and clients. See No. CV 18-5724 PSG (FFMx), 2018 WL 7448914, at *9. Because Weinstein and Judd did not have a service provider/client relationship, the district court dismissed her claim.
Fortunately, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Judd. The Ninth Circuit’s reversal of the district court opinion states that the key element in the enumerated relationships is that, “an inherent power imbalance exists such that, by virtue of his or her ‘business, service, or professional’ position, one party is uniquely situated to exercise coercion or leverage over the other.” Because Judd was an actor at the beginning of her career and Weinstein was an established and powerful Hollywood producer, their relationship may have been defined by an inherent power imbalance. Under the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of section 51.9, Judd and Weinstein’s professional relationship is potentially covered by the statute and she may pursue her sexual harassment claim. The case has been remanded to the district court.
Section 51.9 looks different now than it did in 1996. The statute was amended in 2018 and now explicitly covers sexual harassment by directors, producers, elected officials, and lobbyists, in addition to all of the professions previously specified.
In this week’s decision, the Ninth Circuit recognized the importance of protecting people from sexual harassment in a wide variety of contexts. The Unruh Civil Rights Act and section 51.9 are important tools in the fight against injustice.