Predispute Arbitration Would be Barred for Sex Harassment Claims Under Legislative Proposal

By Elena Gurevich

The Federal Arbitration Act is being targeted in Congress in a bill that seeks to ban predispute arbitration in matters involving sexual harassment.

Last month, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D., N.Y., along with 13 co-sponsors., introduced U.S. Senate bill S-2203, titled “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017.”

The act makes predispute arbitration agreements unenforceable for sex discrimination disputes.  It would put the responsibility for determining arbitrability on courts, not arbitrators.

The Dec. 6 proposal was immediately referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.  It was introduced in the House by Rep. Cheri Bustos, D. Ill., on Dec. 26, with seven co-sponsors, and sent to the Judiciary Committee.

The act would amend United States Code Title 9—the FAA—by adding a new Chapter 4 “Arbitration of Sex Discrimination Disputes” at the end.

In a proposed Section 401, the legislation would define “predispute arbitration agreement” as “any agreement to arbitrate a dispute that had not yet arisen at the time of the making of the agreement,” and “sex discrimination dispute” as “a dispute between an employer and employee arising out of conduct that would form the basis of a claim based on sex under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [citation omitted] if the employment were employment by an employer [as defined in the act], regardless of whether a violation of such title VII is alleged.”

Proposed Section 402, on validity and enforceability, states that “no predispute arbitration agreement shall be valid or enforceable if it requires arbitration of a sex discrimination dispute.”

According to a blog by employment attorneys at the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, if the act is passed into law, it “would not make employment arbitration agreements altogether unenforceable.” Joe Liburt, Allison Riechert Giese and Akasha Perez, “The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act: A Legislative Response to #MeToo,” Orrick Employment Law and Litigation blog (Dec. 14) (available at http://bit.ly/2rmpHSx).

The blog post notes that the proposal “would require employers and employees to litigate sexual harassment claims, while leaving unaffected all other arbitration-eligible claims.  This could potentially require employees who bring both harassment and non-harassment legal claims to litigate some claims in court while simultaneously submitting other claims to arbitrators.”

The proposed law, however, does not prohibit workers and employers from agreeing to arbitration after a dispute arises.

The Orrick blog notes that the legislative proposal “has a long journey” before it is signed into law, explaining that “the bill must be assigned to a committee for consideration, withstand debate” and “pass a vote.” The blog post predicts that it “could take months or even years to complete, if ever.”

A USA Today article notes that Congress also “is wrestling with incidents of sexual harassment,” referring to a resolution passed by the Senate that requires sexual harassment training for senators and staff.

The article discusses a bipartisan bill that was introduced in November that would “overhaul the congressional complaint process and provide better protections for accusers.” The article also notes that “other lawmakers are looking to reform the secret process lawmakers have used to settle numerous workplace harassment and discrimination claims.” See Jessica Guynn, “‘Enough is enough’: Gretchen Carlson says bill ending arbitration would break silence in sexual harassment cases,” USA Today (Dec. 6)(available at https://usat.ly/2ynUM6y).

Some companies already have taken action in the light of the proposed legislation. Last month, Microsoft became the first Fortune 100 company to support the bill. Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith, stated that the company should “act immediately and not wait for a new law to be passed.” Brad Smith, “Microsoft endorses Senate bill to address sexual harassment,” Microsoft blog (Dec. 19)(available at http://bit.ly/2mR65jR).

The author is a CPR intern.

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