Featured on Employment Law This Week: NJ Senate Advances Ban on Sex Harassment Confidentiality Agreements.

The New Jersey Senate wants no more secrecy around harassment claims. On a 34-to-1 vote, the chamber approved legislation banning

involving sexual harassment claims. The bill is still pending in the House, where a vote is expected in the next few weeks. The legislation would also allow victims to keep their identities confidential and would establish jurisdiction in Superior Court, arguably bypassing arbitration agreements.

Watch the segment below.

On May 30, 2018, Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed bill H.707, titled “An Act Relating to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment” (the “Act”). Effect on July 1, 2018, the Act provides expansive protections for employees and prospective employees, as well as some groundbreaking employer obligations and potential penalties for violations of the law.

Among its key provisions, the Act:

  • Applies to all persons “hired to perform work or services,” thereby covering independent contractors and unpaid interns;
  • Prohibits employers from requiring any employee or prospective employee, as a condition of employment, to sign an agreement that waives “a substantive or procedural right or remedy available to the employee with respect to a claim of sexual harassment.” In effect, this provision bans employment agreements requiring that sexual harassment claims be resolved through arbitration;[1]
  • Prohibits employment agreements that prevent or restrict an employee or prospective employee from “opposing, disclosing, reporting, or participating in an investigation of sexual harassment;”
  • Requires that all sexual harassment settlement agreements contain specific statements (discussed below) describing when a claimant-party has the right to disclose information about his or her allegations and the settlement;
  • Mandates that a sexual harassment settlement agreement may not prohibit the claimant-party from working for the employer “or any parent company, subsidiary, division, or affiliate of the employer;”
  • Directs the development of a public education and outreach program, including the establishment of a hotline and web portal for the reporting of sexual harassment complaints to the Vermont Human Rights Commission or the Attorney General’s Office;
  • Requires the Attorney General’s Office to develop a streamlined reporting system;
  • Provides the Attorney General broad powers to investigate and enforce the law, including, among other things, the authority to conduct an inspection of an employer’s records, and in certain circumstances (described below), require the employer to conduct employee training; and,
  • Directs the Office of Legislative Affairs to develop “mechanisms” for essentially voiding non-disclosure agreements in prior settlements where, in a separate, later claim, the alleged harasser is “adjudicated by a court or tribunal of competent jurisdiction to have engaged in sexual harassment or retaliation in relation to a claim of sexual harassment.”

Further, consistent with existing law, which mandates that employers must adopt an anti-harassment policy, the new Act reiterates that employers:

  • Must provide all new hires with a copy of their written policies on sexual harassment, and again distribute copies to all employees if the policies are revised; and
  • Are encouraged, but not required, to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all employees as well as supervisors and managers.

Inclusion of Required Statement in Sexual Harassment Settlements

As noted above, the Act imposes limits on the extent to which a sexual harassment settlement agreement can require confidentiality. Under the new law, employers must expressly state in such settlement agreements that the agreement does not prohibit or restrict the claimant from:

  • Testifying, assisting, or participating in an investigation of a sexual harassment claim conducted by any state or federal agency:
  • Complying with a discovery request or testifying in a proceeding concerning a claim of sexual harassment; and
  • Exercising “any right” the claimant has under State or federal labor relations laws “to engage in concerted activities with other employees for the purposes of collective bargaining or mutual aid and protection.”

The statement also must make clear that the claimant “does not waive any rights or claims that may arise after the date the settlement agreement is executed.”

The State’s Powers to Audit Employers and Enforce the Law

As stated above, the Act grants the Attorney General broad authority to conduct inspections and collect data. Specifically, the Act authorizes the Attorney General’s Office, on 48 hours’ notice to the employer, to “enter and inspect any place of business, question any person who is authorized by the employer to receive or investigate complaints of sexual harassment, and examine an employer’s records, policies, procedures, and training materials related to the prevention of sexual harassment.” This authority includes the right to examine all documents related to sexual harassment claims, including the number and details of such complaints and their resolution.

If, after inspection, the Attorney General’s Office or the Human Rights Commission determines that action is “necessary to ensure the employer’s workplace is free from sexual harassment,” either office can, among other remedies, order the employer to provide annual sexual harassment education and training for up to three years.

Finally, the previously described directive to the Office of Legislative Affairs to explore “mechanisms” which would allow the Attorney General to void non-disclosure agreements in prior settlements after a subsequent finding of sexual harassment in a separate case would be a significant development in this area of the law should it actually be developed and implemented.

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[1] Arguably, mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims already was banned in Vermont under another law, which bars arbitration agreements that prevent a person from “seeking or obtaining the assistance of the courts in enforcing his or her constitutional or civil rights.” It should be noted that this arbitration ban, along with others, such as the one recently enacted in New York, may be preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act. With the increase in these kinds of laws, it is likely that, at some point, there will be a court challenge to at least one of them on preemption grounds.

This post was written with assistance from Alison Gabay, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

On March 21, 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed bill SB 5996 (the “Law”), which prohibits employers from requiring as a condition of employment that employees sign a nondisclosure agreement preventing them from discussing workplace sexual harassment or sexual assault. The Law goes into effect on June 7, 2018.

In addition to sexual offenses in the workplace, the Law covers such incidents that occur at work-related events “coordinated by or through the employer,” or between employees, or between an employer and an employee off the employment premises. The new Law also prevents employers from retaliating against employees who disclose workplace sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Notably, however, the Law does not prohibit an employer from including confidentiality provisions in a settlement agreement with an employee regarding sexual harassment allegations. Further, the Law provides exceptions for human resources, supervisory, and managerial staff who are expected to maintain confidentiality as part of their jobs. It also excludes employees who participate in an “open and ongoing” sexual harassment investigation and are requested to maintain confidentiality during that investigation.

Under the Law, “sexual harassment” is defined broadly to mean unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact, or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature if submission to that conduct or communication is, among other things, used as a factor in decisions affecting that individual’s employment or creates a hostile environment. “Sexual assault” is similarly defined as any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.

Employers in other states should be aware that the kind of nondisclosure agreements banned by the new Washington law also may be unlawful under federal labor laws protecting concerted activity (i.e., with at least one other employee) for the employees’ mutual aid or protection.

State Commission to Develop Model Policies and Best Practices

Also on March 21, 2018, Governor Inslee signed bill SB 6471, which directs the Washington State Human Rights Commission to create a “work group” to develop model policies and best practices for employers and employees to keep workplaces safe from sexual harassment. The bill requires the agency to adopt the model policies and best practices developed by the work group and to post them on the agency’s website by January 1, 2019.

On March 7, 2018, the New York City Council formally introduced “The Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act,” a package of 11 bills, aimed at strengthening protections against, and remedies for, sexual harassment in the workplace. As discussed below, four of these bills, if enacted, would significantly expand the obligations of many employers to prevent sexual harassment and would increase all private NYC employers’ vulnerability to sexual harassment claims.

Mandatory Sexual Harassment Training

Int. 632 would require all private NYC employers with 15 or more employees to conduct annual, “interactive” training on sexual harassment for all full-time and part-time employees who work more than 80 hours in a calendar year in NYC. The training could be in person or through an online program.

Specifically, the annual, interactive training for employees must include the following:

  • An explanation of sexual harassment as a form of unlawful discrimination under local, state and federal law;
  • A description of what sexual harassment is and is not, using practical examples;
  • A description of the employer’s internal complaint processes, if any, available to employees to address sexual harassment claims;
  • A description of the complaint process available through the Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”), the New York State Division of Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including contact information;
  • An explanation, with examples, of what constitutes “retaliation” under the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”); and
  • A discussion of the importance of bystander intervention.

In addition to this general training requirement, NYC employers would also be required to train their supervisors and managers annually on subjects such as their role in the prevention of harassment and retaliation, and how to address sexual harassment complaints.

The bill defines “interactive training” as “participatory teaching whereby the trainee is engaged in a trainer-trainee interaction, use of audio-visuals, or other participatory forms of training as determined by the commission.” The bill further directs the Commission to develop online training modules for small, medium and large workplaces that would satisfy the training requirement, and to allow for the electronic provision of certification each time an employee completes a training module.

Additionally, covered employers would be required to maintain records, for three years, of all training, including a signed employee acknowledgement that must include (i) the date, time, title, duration and location of the training; (ii) whether the training was conducted live or online; and (iii) the name of the person(s) who conducted the training.

If passed, Int. 632 will take effect on September 1, 2018. Penalties for violations of the law would range from $100-$500 for the first violation and from $500-$2,000 for each succeeding violation. However, an employer would be able to avoid a penalty for a first-time violation if the employer could prove within 60 days of the issuance of the notice of violation that it has complied with the law. 

New Sexual Harassment Poster

Int. 630 would require all employers in New York City to post a sexual harassment rights and responsibilities poster in English and Spanish, and to provide new hires with an information sheet on sexual harassment, which would both be created by the Commission and made available to employers.  If passed, Int. 630 would take effect 120 days after enactment and would carry civil penalties for non-compliance.

More Time to File a Complaint

Int. 663 would lengthen the statute of limitations for harassment claims arising under the NYCHRL. Instead of the current one-year statute of limitations, aggrieved employees would be permitted to file complaints up to three years from the date of the alleged harassment. This longer statute of limitations would apply to claims “based on unwelcome conduct that intimidates, interferes with, oppresses, threatens, humiliates or degrades a person based in whole or in part on such person’s gender.”  This bill would take effect immediately upon enactment.

Expanded Employer Coverage under the NYCHRL

Currently, the NYCHRL applies to employers with four or more employees. Int. 657 would eliminate that employee threshold with respect to gender-based harassment claims, thereby subjecting all NYC employers to potential liability for sex harassment under the NYCHRL.[1]

Conclusion

We will continue to monitor these bills as the legislation proceeds and provide updates on any significant developments.

[1] New York State expanded sexual harassment and discrimination protections to all employees in 2015.

Our colleagues , at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Health Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “DFEH Publishes Materials to Assist Employers With Handling Harassment Allegations.”

Following is an excerpt:

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) recently released a brief, nine-page guide for California employers, which was prepared in conjunction with the California Sexual Harassment Task Force.  This guide is intended to assist employers in developing an effective anti-harassment program, including information about how to properly investigate reports of harassment and understand what recourse is available.  The guide addresses all forms of workplace harassment, including harassment based on sex. …

Read the full post here.

By Amy Messigian

Last month, the California Court of Appeal ruled that a former employee of Forever 21 must try her claims against the retailer in arbitration, enforcing the company’s employment arbitration policy and reversing a lower court decision finding the agreement unconscionable under California law.  The plaintiff, Maribel Baltazar, alleged that she had been discriminated against by the retailer due to her race and sexually harassed by a supervisor and coworker.  She filed a complaint against Forever 21 and several of its employees in the Los Angeles Superior Court and the retailer moved to compel Baltazar to arbitration.

Reversing the lower court, the Court of Appeal found that Baltazar had been given the opportunity to review the arbitration agreement, which was contained in her employment contract, and that the contract’s provision allowing the parties to seek injunctive relief in court did not unduly favor Forever 21.  The panel noted that six of the claims asserted in Baltazar’s suit were brought under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), which authorizes injunctive relief, and that there was nothing to suggest that the employer would be more likely than the employee to seek provisional remedies.

Injunctive relief provisions have sounded the death knell for many employment arbitration agreements in California of late, with multiple appellate decisions citing an injunctive remedy as unduly favoring the employer.  Ostensibly, these courts are inclined to believe that an employer is more likely than an employee to seek injunctive relief.  The Baltazar court felt otherwise. Until this issue is considered by the California Supreme Court, it remains likely that the luck of the draw will ultimately decide whether an arbitration agreement is enforceable if it contains a provisional remedies provision that allows parties to seek an injunction in court.