Proposed Bills Highlight Legal Risks of Sexual Misconduct Claims

In the current climate of sexual harassment incidents being reported in a variety of industries across the country, organizations and their legal departments should be reviewing legislation and considering their legal risks, should they need to defend against sexual harassment or misconduct allegations.

Just this month, in fact, legislation was proposed at state and federal levels to keep employers from trying to silence accusers following mediation and settlements. The

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)

Huffington Post reported that the bipartisan legislation from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) would ban employers from holding employees to forced arbitration clauses, which often prevent sexual misconduct survivors from speaking publicly about abuses in the workplace.

Similarly, legislation targeting nondisclosure agreements was recently introduced by state officials in New Jersey, California, New York and Pennsylvania to their respective legislatures. These involve standard confidentiality contracts that companies use in the event of a lawsuit so that the terms of a settlement do not become public knowledge. Depending on if, and with what wording, these bills are passed it will almost certainly affect companies’ and leaders’ policies and behaviors.

Linda B. Hollinshead, a partner in the employment law practice of Duane Morris told Risk Management Monitor that if confidentiality cannot be guaranteed during a settlement, there could be less mediation and arbitration and more courtroom battles as a result.

“If these bills are passed into law, I will be curious to see how employers change the way they handle these issues—because one of the things you hope to buy when you settle, is quiet,” said Hollinshead. “I would presume that if this is the direction in which things are going, employers may become increasingly more vigilant on preventing [misconduct] in the first place.”

Regarding the New Jersey legislation, advocates seem to be pleased with the bill’s introduction but do not disregard the value confidentiality can provide for a victim of sexual misconduct.

“While we are in favor of the intent of the bill, we do want to make sure survivors have the option to confidentiality,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Many survivors might wish to engage in a nondisclosure agreement, and we need to expand the opportunity for them to have the option to pursue nondisclosure.”

According to XpertHR’s Top 15 Most Challenging HR Compliance Issues for 2018  small, medium and large employers across the country expect sexual harassment to be a top matter of urgency moving forward. The report reminds that misconduct can occur between co-workers, both in and out of the workplace:

Harassment also may involve a wide variety of conduct—physical, written or verbal, as well as conduct over the internet and social media including cyberbullying.

For more legal risks to consider, visit www.rims.org to download the new RIMS Professional Report, The Top 8 Legal Developments You Need to Know About in 2017.

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