Of the many advantages employers have over victims of sexual harassment, perhaps none matches the power to compel victims to arbitrate, for them to forgo the opportunity of a lawsuit in state or federal court.
Sidebar: if you don’t know, arbitration is a kind of private court, where one (or more) arbitrators act as quasi judges. Often, employment contracts will have language in them requiring the employees to arbitrate work-related disputes, including allegations of sexual harassment. Depending upon which side you ask, you will get very different reactions to whether arbitration is a good thing. According to the American Arbitration Association, arbitration is “faster and more cost effective than litigation.” Unsurprisingly, employers generally agree with this assessment; after a few beers they might even admit arbitration, on balance, strongly favors employers. But, even if we accept the speed-cost premise (for argument’s sake), sexual harassment victims seeking redress may not benefit from speed and efficiency.
The attorneys general of every single U.S. State seem to think so anyway. In a February 12, 2018 letter to Congress – spearheaded by our very own Attorney General Pam Bondi – the attorneys general unanimously concluded that
[w]hile there may be benefits to arbitration provisions in other contexts, they do not extend to sexual harassment claims.”
Why? Because arbitrators “are not positioned to ensure that such victims are accorded both procedural and substantive due process.” Now, that is quite a statement coming jointly from representatives of deep-red (aka employer-friendly), as well as blue states. The letter also highlights the deleterious effect that secrecy – many arbitrations are secret – can have on society at-large because the scope of the problem is swept under the proverbial rug.
So, will we see some change? I frankly have no idea . . . the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2018 was introduced in Congress last month. The bill purports to prohibit arbitration in employment, consumer, antitrust and civil rights disputes. But, as even casual observers of the congressional sausage factory will tell you: it is a long way from bill to law. The #metoo movement was clearly the impetus for the bill. We will just have to see if the will remains when the topic of sexual harassment has faded from the headlines.