No More Secrets: States Introduce Legislation to Preclude Confidentiality Provisions in Settlement Agreements Involving Harassment Allegations

Allegations of sexual misconduct against celebrities and high-profile individuals continue to occupy the national spotlight. State legislators around the country have started to propose new laws which ban confidentiality and nondisclosure provisions in settlement agreements that resolve disputes arising from sexual harassment allegations. As we wrote about in an early blog post, critics of confidentiality provisions claim these clauses enable victimizers to conceal and continue long-running patterns of sexual misconduct, and prevent discussion of the accusations among the victims and co-workers.

We have summarized the proposed legislation here:

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How Can Employers Respond to Increased Risks of Well-Funded Harassment Litigation Stemming from the #MeToo Movement?

Cheryl Orr and Phil Lebel wrote an article for Risk & Compliance magazine titled “How Can Employers Respond to Increased Risks of Well-Funded Harassment Litigation Stemming from the #MeToo Movement?” They discuss the recent uptick in sexual harassment allegations in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, which began following allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017.

Cheryl and Phil highlight litigation finance and funding firms that have invited individuals who believe they have been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace to share their stories, seek legal representation, and, in some cases, receive “angel” litigation funding. They state that “[i]f this is, in fact, the beginning of a groundswell of harassment claims, the impact to employers could be tremendous. An increase in sexual harassment claims…could mean rising litigation expenses. Moreover, in the current social and political climate, verdicts could be increasingly unpredictable as juries attempt to ‘correct’ larger social problems by punishing employers who are found liable.” The article also notes that lawmakers in several jurisdictions are facing voter pressure to address the perceived shortcomings in the current legal framework, as applied to sexual harassment cases.

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Could A Litigation Finance Initiative Capitalize On #MeToo?

Since early October 2017, when the allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein first surfaced in The New York Times and The New Yorker, there has been a steady stream of allegations of sexual harassment against high-profile individuals in the media, entertainment and political industries. Now, a Bay Area startup backed by Peter Thiel is looking to take advantage of a potential new wave of sexual harassment lawsuits.

On November 8, 2017, San Francisco-based litigation finance firm Legalist, Inc. launched a new initiative dubbed #MeToo Tales (“M2T”). According to its website, M2T is “a collaboration between Legalist and community organizers working to help victims of sexual harassment get justice.” M2T invites individuals who believe that they have been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace to share their stories confidentially on the initiative’s website or via a toll-free hotline. Legalist offers to pair claimants with its partner law firms and, for “eligible” individuals, to provide “angel” litigation funding of up to $100,000. Legalist recoups its funding by taking a portion of the proceeds from any successful litigation or settlement.

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In Wiest v. Tyco Electronics Corp., the Third Circuit Further Clarifies a Plaintiff’s Prima Facie Burden for a Retaliation Claim under SOX

Wiest v. Tyco Electronics Corp., a case that has been closely watched by Sarbanes-Oxley (“SOX”) practitioners, may have finally come to a close after nearly six years of litigation. In its decision (click here to view), the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s granting of summary judgment for Tyco, and provided additional clarification on what a plaintiff must do to make out a prima facie retaliation claim under SOX.

Tyco asserted that it fired Plaintiff Jeffrey Wiest in 2008 for inappropriate sexual relations with two female co-workers and sexual harassment. He then brought suit under SOX, alleging that Tyco terminated him for raising concerns to his managers about excessive corporate expenditures.

The case has twice been on appeal to the Third Circuit. In 2010, Tyco successfully moved to dismiss Wiest’s complaint on the basis that his complaints did not amount to “protected activity” under SOX. Upon appeal, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded, adopting the worker-friendly standard that an employee engages in “protected activity” where he has a “reasonable belief” that the employer has violated or may violate the law or SEC rules (rejecting the standard, announced and later abandoned by the DOL’s Administrative Review Board, that the complaint must “definitively and specifically” relate to an existing violation of a particular anti-fraud law).

After remand, Tyco was eventually granted summary judgment on the basis that Wiest’s complaints were not a “contributing factor” in his termination. Wiest again appealed to the Third Circuit, which affirmed, and in the process adopted the standard of several other Circuits that a “contributing factor” was “any factor, which alone or in combination with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.”

The “contributing factor” standard is a relatively low bar, specifically when compared to the causation standard for retaliation claims under some other statutes. Under Title VII, for example, an employee must establish that his protected activity was a “but-for” cause of the adverse action. See Univ. of Texas Southwestern Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2521 (2013) (“Title VII retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was the but-for cause of the challenged employment action.”). Nonetheless, the Third Circuit had no trouble finding that Wiest was unable to meet his burden, noting that there was a ten-month gap between Wiest’s alleged protected activity and the adverse action; that he received praise and commendations in the interim; that the persons who initiated the investigations into Wiest’s inappropriate behavior had no knowledge of his protected activity; and that other persons in the accounting department who were involved (or more involved) in the same activity as Wiest did not receive any negative treatment.

Further, the Court also held that, even if Wiest were able to establish a prima facie case, his claim would have failed regardless. An employer may still rely on the defense that it would have taken the adverse action in the absence of protected activity, and the Court held that “Tyco has demonstrated that it would have taken the same actions with respect to Wiest in the absence of Wiest’s accounting activity given the thorough, and thoroughly documented, investigation [into his inappropriate activity] conducted by its human resources director.”

The Wiest decision is useful guidance for employers defending against SOX retaliation claims, as it outlines potential arguments (concerning the temporal relationship between the protected activity and adverse action, intervening events, and the thoroughness of internal investigations) that may be used to defeat an inference of causation or to establish the affirmative defense that the adverse action would have occurred regardless.

Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation – 2014 Edition

Drinker Biddle proudly announces the release of the 2014 edition of Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation. Written and updated for 2014 by Labor & Employment Group partners Gerald S. Hartman and Gregory W. Homer, Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation is a must have reference for employment lawyers, in-house employment counsel, general counsels, and human resources professionals.  The one-volume annually updated manual provides insight on preventing, preparing for, and managing employment litigation in discussing all types of discrimination, harassment, wage, leave and wrongful discharge claims.

The 2014 edition of Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation retails for $385.  Drinker Biddle has arranged a special discount rate of 20% off the retail price for friends of the firm. To purchase your copy of Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation click here.

Taylor v. Nabors Drilling and California’s SB 292 Clarify that Sexual Harassment Need Not Be Motivated by Sexual Desire

By: Saba Shatara

On January 13, 2014, the California Court of Appeal decided in Taylor v. Nabors Drilling USA, L.P., 222 Cal. App. 4th 1228 (2014), that a person may maintain an action for sexual harassment when subjected to verbal attacks on his or her heterosexual identity, regardless of whether the attacks were motivated by sexual desire.  This ruling came soon after the implementation of SB 292, which became effective in California on January 1, 2014.  This bill revised the definition of sexual harassment under California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) to specify that sexually harassing conduct “need not be motivated by sexual desire.”  As a result, to prove harassment “because of sex,” plaintiffs need only show that there was evidence that gender was a substantial factor in the harassment. 

Both Taylor and SB 292 explicitly reject the view adopted by the California Court of Appeal in Kelley v. Conco Companies, 196 Cal. App. 4th 191 (2011), which held that a plaintiff failed to prove sexual intent because there was no evidence that heterosexual harassers sexually desired the male plaintiff.  The court made this decision despite the fact that the defendant and coworkers in Kelley used “graphic, vulgar, and sexually explicit” language to express sexual interest and solicit sexual activity from the plaintiff.

Taylor and SB 292 resolve any ambiguity created by the Kelley decision, and make clear that a showing of sexual desire is not an essential element of a claim of sexual harassment—thereby affirming and solidifying California authority published before Kelley.  Thus, it is clear that a plaintiff may establish an inference that an alleged harasser’s conduct is sexual by producing: (1) evidence of the alleged harasser’s sexual desire; (2) evidence that the alleged harasser is motivated by general hostility towards the particular gender of which plaintiff is a member; or (3) comparative evidence about how the alleged harasser treated members of both sexes in a mixed-sex workplace.  

These developments in California sexual harassment law have important consequences for employers.  To avoid a greater occurrence of suits, employers must now scrutinize offensive comments by same-sex employees objectively, based on the content of the remarks, not the intent of the speaker.  Employers can minimize liability through adequate complaint protocols, instituting zero tolerance policies, and encouraging employees to report any inappropriate workplace behaviors.  These actions may prevent alleged harassing conduct from being deemed sufficiently severe or pervasive.  Employers should also stress that bullying, such as the use of homophobic epithets to heterosexual employees (Taylor), subjects the employer to liability.  Accordingly, employers should update their policies and handbooks to reflect the change, as well as provide employees relevant information and a copy of the updated policy.  Lastly, employers may consider additional training for supervisors or issuing a memo, advising them of SB 292 and their responsibilities to administer policies in conformity with the new law.