Under California law, to be actionable/unlawful the harassment at workplace must be sufficiently “severe and pervasive.” This means that, generally isolated comments and incidents, unless egregious, do not rise to the level of sexual harassment as defined by FEHA (California Fair Employment and Housing Act). But, what about staring? Can staring be grounds for a sexual harassment claim? On one hand, staring might be a very subjective complaints, as some people might think that someone is staring at them when in fact no one does. On the other hand, overt staring might be very threatening and indicate a kind of obsession and other threatening behavior.
The California Court of Appeal confronted the issue of whether staring can be considered sexual harassment in Birschtein v. New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (2001). In that case, a forklift driver approached the female assembly worker and asked her out several times. After she refused his propositions, he started sharing his explicit sexual fantasies about her, and drive around and look for her when she was not around. After the claimant complaint about harassment to the management, the forklift driver stopped speaking to her and never spoke to her again. Instead, he began staring at her. He would drive to her work station five or more times per day and stare directly at her for at least several second each time. He would also sit behind the forklift and stare at the plaintiff for five to ten minutes at a time.
When the female employee sued her employer for sexual harassment and failure to prevent harassment, one of the arguments that the defense attorneys had was that staring is not a sufficiently severe and pervasive behavior to constitute harassment as a matter of law. The court disagreed. In its holding, the court suggested that staring is particularly likely to be actionable as harassment if there is a prior history of prior acts between the harasser and the victim of harassment that would cause the victim to feel threatened and intimidated when the harasser, who engaged in the more overt acts of harassment, engages in staring in retaliation for the victim’s complaints. In other words, the court seemed to suggest that while staring alone might not be sufficient to constitute harassment, when combined with other (prior acts) by the same harasser, it may be sufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute sexual harassment.