Thursday, August 16News That Matters

56 attorneys general call on Congress to help sexual harassment victims gain access to the courts

Attorneys general from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories wrote a letter Monday imploring Congress to make the courts more accessible to victims of sexual harassment.

The letter, addressed to congressional leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), explicitly addresses legislation that would eliminate mandatory arbitration agreements between employers and victims when sexual harassment claims are made. Arbitration agreements result in behind-closed-door settlements that deny victims due process under the law.

“Additional concerns arise from the secrecy requirements of arbitration clauses, which disserve
the public interest by keeping both the harassment complaints and any settlements confidential.
This veil of secrecy may then prevent other persons similarly situated from learning of the
harassment claims so that they, too, might pursue relief,” the attorneys general wrote. “Ending mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims would help to put a stop to the culture of silence that protects perpetrators at the cost of their victims.”

The letter goes on to acknowledge that both the House of Representatives and Senate have legislation in the works that would address this issue directly, and that “whatever form the final version may take, [the attorneys general] strongly support appropriately-tailored legislation to ensure that sexual harassment victims have a right to their day in court.”

The attorneys general also praised Microsoft, which announced in December that it had discontinued arbitration policies for sexual harassment claims, for being an early trendsetter in an important movement.

“As Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer has fairly noted, ‘[b]ecause the silencing of voices has helped perpetuate sexual harassment, the country should guarantee that people can go to court to ensure these concerns can always be heard,’” they wrote.

The House of Representatives passed legislation last week that would reform the way lawmakers’ offices handle sexual harassment cases. As it currently stands, the House’s sexual harassment policy is all but designed to protect the harasser. The new legislation would overhaul parts of the Congressional Accountability Act, streamlining the process by eliminating the mandatory 30 days of counseling and mediation period accusers were previously forced to endure. It also required that all claims in which a settlement was made be referred to the House Ethics Committee. A version of the bill is currently in the works in the Senate.

The announcement from the attorneys general comes weeks after 22 Democratic senators called on the Labor Department to collect better data when it comes to the economic impact of sexual harassment in the workplace.

“What is known is that harassment is not confined to industry or one group. It affects minimum-wage fast-food workers, middle-class workers at car manufacturing plants, and white-collar workers in finance and law, among many others,” the senators wrote in a letter. “No matter the place or source, harassment has a tangible and negative economic effect on individuals’ lifetime income and retirement, and its pervasiveness damages the economy as a whole.”