Despite bitter partisan divide in Washington, both the House and Senate recently passed H.R. 4445 which will effectively end the forced arbitration of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases. (Read here.)
What does this mean? Many employees may not even be aware that they signed an arbitration agreement when they accepted the offer from their employer. Often these clauses are buried in employment agreements, and employees have no knowledge or understanding of what they even mean. However, employers favor forced arbitration because it keeps them out of court. The effect of forced arbitration clauses is that they close the courthouse doors for many victims of sexual assault or harassment.
When a new client comes to me with a claim of sexual assault or harassment, one of the first things we want to know is whether they signed an arbitration agreement. If a victim is bound by an arbitration agreement, then we can’t file a public lawsuit. Arbitration agreements empower employers to make low ball offers to settle and insist on confidentiality. These agreements effectively take away a victim’s right to go public with the allegations and exposing the perpetrators.
Many defense lawyers are surmising that this will result in a huge increase in the number of lawsuits being filed by victims, and larger settlements because corporations are no longer going to be able to force victims into a confidential arbitration proceeding. The guaranty of confidentiality means less exposure and publicity for perpetrators and the corporations for which they work.
While it remains to be seen whether this will cause an increase in lawsuits, this can certainly be viewed as a win for victims of sexual assault and harassment. The law basically amends the Federal Arbitration Act to make it easier for victims to file suit in State or Federal Court despite having previously agreed to arbitrate those claims. Victims will now have the right to choose to file their claims in court, rather than being forced by their employers to arbitration, thus allowing their claims will be heard by a judge, not an arbitrator.
The effects of the new law go beyond just giving victims their “day in court.” This will now force employers to effectively address sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. Gone are the days of paying off victims and buying their silence with a confidentiality agreement. By shining the light of a public proceeding on a perpetrator, it may prevent them from finding any future victims.
If you are a victim of sexual assault or harassment in the workplace, you need to know your rights. Call one of our experienced employment law attorneys for a free consultation.