Bills Responding to Sexual Harassment Claims May Preview Further Legislative Reforms

November 17, 2017

In the wake of a number of tragic and high-profile sexual harassment and assault cases, Congress and at least one state legislature will consider measures seeking to prevent and respond to such incidents.  At the federal level, a bipartisan bill introduced this week by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) would mandate an in-house counsel for sexual harassment victims, impose restrictions on non-disclosure agreements, provide protections to whistleblowers, require sexual harassment training for congressional offices and members, ensure that interns and fellows receive the same protections as paid employees, and clarify and streamline the reporting and investigative process.  Meanwhile, House Workforce Protections Chair Bradley Byrne (R-AL) recommended requiring members to pay out of pocket for settlements, instead of from Treasury coffers, and for the settlement to be made public record, noting:

"Personally I find this unacceptable.  If a member of Congress settles a claim as the harasser or is found liable as the harasser, it is my belief the member should be personally liable or required to repay the Treasury for such damages."

In the previous Congress, Rep. Speier introduced legislation that would require colleges and universities to report all substantiated findings of sexual assault and harassment by professors to every federal agency that has awarded the institution competitive research and development grants in the past 10 years.  These measures could ultimately lead to broader requirements for all employers.  Such measures are already starting to be considered at the state level.  A California bill, which will be introduced next year, would ban confidentiality provisions in monetary settlements of sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination cases.  California State Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino), who will sponsor the bill, said, "Secret settlements in sexual assault and related cases can jeopardize the public—including other potential victims—and allow perpetrators to escape justice just because they have the money to pay the cost of the settlements.  This bill will ensure that sexual predators can be held accountable for their actions and ideally prevent them from victimizing others."