56 AGs Join Forces Against Workplace Sexual Harassment

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, attorneys general from every U.S. state and territory signed a letter asking Congress to stop employers from forcing sexual harassment claims to be resolved out of court.
by | February 13, 2018
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro adjusts her "Times Up" lapel pin that she wore to President Trump's State of the Union address in January. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The attorney general of every state, U.S. territory and the District of Columbia signed a letter on Monday asking Congress to increase protections for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Specifically, the AGs want to prevent employers from drafting employment contracts that force sexual harassment claims to be resolved outside of court.

“[Access to the judicial system] should extend fully to persons who have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet, many employers require their employees, as a condition of employment, to sign arbitration agreements mandating that sexual harassment claims be resolved through arbitration instead of judicial proceedings,” the letter reads.

It notes that such requirements are often found in the fine print of employment contracts, leaving employees largely in the dark about what they agreed to until they’ve been sexually harassed and try to file a lawsuit.

It's a somewhat rare effort of bipartisanship at a time when most lawsuits that state AGs file only gather support from their own party. During the Obama administration, Republican AGs took one legal action after another to fight the president's policies. Democrats are now using that same tactic to combat the Trump administration.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein are the leaders of the National Association of Attorneys General, the bipartisan coalition behind the letter.

“Decades of private arbitration proceedings regarding sexual harassment have had the unintended consequence of protecting serial violators, and it must end,” Bondi said in a press release about the letter.

Time has previously reported on the negative consequences of arbitration clauses in employment contracts, which often compel secrecy regarding the terms of any arbitration agreement. One study has found that up to a quarter of nonunionized U.S. workers are subject to an arbitration clause.

The push from the AGs comes in the wake of a slew of allegations against powerful men who have serially preyed upon their subordinates in the workplace.

Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at Fox News were two of the first in 2016 and early 2017. Ailes tried unsuccessfully to move a suit by one of his accusers, on-air reporter Gretchen Carlson, into arbitration, claiming she had violated the provisions of her employment contract with the suit. (Carlson's lawyers, however, worked around the clause by suing Ailes directly and not Fox News.)

Those allegations were followed by explosive discoveries of abuse and harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, whose decades-long abuses of power brought forth a cultural reckoning on the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Politicians haven’t been exempt from that reckoning. Several members of Congress and more than a dozen state lawmakers have resigned after allegations of harassment. In state capitols, the abuse allegations have stretched from California to Maryland to Iowa to Nevada to Oklahoma and Tennessee.

In December, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced a bill that would end forced arbitration of sexual harassment cases. The bill was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.