In a rare show of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate passed legislation this month that prohibits employers from forcing victims of sexual assault and harassment from settling their complaints via arbitration. Support for the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act was so strong that it passed via a voice vote. The House version, which passed days earlier, also received bipartisan support, although nearly 100 Republican lawmakers voted against it.
The bill will become law and take effect as soon as President Joe Biden signs it. The White House has already expressed support for the legislation.
Giving survivors “their day in court”
A longtime champion of the legislation, New York’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, said it “will give survivors their day in court, allow them to discuss their cases publicly and end the days of institutional protection for harassers.” The widespread practice of confidential agreements that paid alleged sexual assault and harassment victims but required their silence came to light over the past few years with the #MeToo movement.
These agreements have allowed powerful perpetrators to continue in their positions or move to other companies and prey on unsuspecting victims. While victims can still deal with their cases via arbitration and keep the details private, they will now have the right to take their alleged abusers to court if they choose.
The legislation extends beyond the workplace
The new law will help over 60 million victims who have already settled their cases by voiding their confidentiality agreements. Further, other victims who have been prevented from taking action because of provisions in various legal agreements can now do so. Most people didn’t realize that the forced arbitration clauses contained in everything from vacation rental contracts to patient agreements prevented victims of sexual assault from suing their perpetrators until they tried.
One of the bill’s most vocal advocates, former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, got around her forced arbitration clause by suing her boss, Fox CEO Roger Ailes, personally for sexual harassment. She ended up with a $20 million settlement and an apology from Fox’s parent company.
It’s crucial for all victims of sexual harassment and assault to understand how this sweeping new law will affect them. It’s wise to seek legal guidance to learn more.