High Profile Sexual Harassment Cases May Represent a Legal Tipping Point

It seems as if every day there is another story of sexual harassment perpetrated by a celebrity or a politician. From the accounts about movie producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey to political heavyweights like Senator Al Franken and Judge Roy Moore, stories that once remained hidden in the shadows are now commanding headlines, forcing resignations, and importantly, leading to successful legal outcomes.

To gauge the impact of the constant drumbeat of headlines, one need look no further than the difference in outcomes between the first Bill Cosby trial and the second. The first, held in early 2017 before the #METOO movement took hold, ended in a mistrial: the second, decided just a year later but after the highly publicized revelations of women who had been harassed and abused by other high-powered men, led to the comedian being found guilty on all three counts of indecent assault.

The first time that sexual harassment came into the public gaze was back in 1991, when Anita Hill testified that then-Supreme-Court-nominee Clarence Thomas had harassed her when she’d worked for him at the United States Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. What was notable at that time was that women believed Hill’s account because they recognized the same actions in their own lives, but none wanted to come forward themselves. The most impactful sexual harassment laws had been passed before Anita Hill came forward, but since that time more women have shown the courage to tell their stories, and the most recent cases have given women who have been suffering in the shadows the strength and impetus to come forward. Importantly, men are also believing and supporting victims.

The true tipping point that has brought sexual harassment came in 2017, when several celebrity women came forward to tell harrowing tales of their harassment at the hands of movie producer Harvey Weinstein. A social media hashtag movement, #MeToo, went viral and was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Since then nearly every industry, including the music industry, academia, politics and the military have seen women and men coming forward to tell their tales of harassment, with many victims filing lawsuits against their tormenters. Initial concerns that only women in positions of power would get attention and justice have been belied by a continuing stream of claims filed by workers at McDonald’s restaurants and engineers at the ride sharing company Uber.

As victims of sexual harassment are suddenly finding themselves believed by both the public and by juries, companies are beginning to respond with revisions to their internal training procedures and reporting policies. Others are working to reduce the culture of silence by dropping their requirement that victims of harassment pursue remedies through arbitration. At the same time, new federal, state and local laws are being passed.

On a federal level, there have been proposals that would require employers to report the number of settlements they have signed for sex discrimination and harassment, eliminating forced arbitration in sexual harassment suits, and prohibiting tax deductions for payments of settlement agreements. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has proposed new guidance on harassment training that suggests training be provided to all employees, regardless of the legal requirements in the employer’s state.

New Jersey’s sexual harassment laws have long ranked among the most stringent and robust in the country, but there is new legislation proposing making sexual harassment of anybody connected to a business an unlawful employment practice. New Jersey first recognized sexual harassment in 1993, and since that time New Jersey has been in the forefront of the fight to keep workplaces free of sexual harassment.

The sexual harassment laws in New Jersey split offenses into two types of violations: one is when an employee is being subjected to a hostile work environment and the other is quid pro quo sexual harassment in which a person of authority gives terms of employment such as promotions or compensation based on sexual favors. Both are specifically prohibited under the terms of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. If you are being subjected to sexual harassment, both state and federal laws give you rights, and the raised awareness created by the #MeToo movement have moved more women to take courageous action to protect themselves and stand up for their rights. If you would like to speak with an experienced employment law attorney in New Jersey, contact our office to set up an appointment.

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