BATON ROUGE — The House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee voted 6-4 to approve a bill that would prevent employers from including clauses in employment contracts that require non-criminal sexual harassment claims be settled outside the courtroom.
The bill is one of several aimed at preventing sexual harassment in response to the nationwide #MeToo movement and allegations of sexual misconduct against Secretary of State Tom Schedler.
The bill, authored by Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, would stop companies from requiring new employees to sign agreements to have potential sexual harassment cases settled by an arbitrator instead of a court.
Johnson’s bill would eliminate these upfront agreements and allow accusers to choose whether to take sexual harassment cases to court or use other means, like an arbitrator or mediator.
Johnson acknowledged the merits of arbitration–in which all parties are bound to accept the decision without any right to appeal–in other types of business cases but said he did not think it should be required in cases of sexual misconduct.
“This goes beyond business,” Johnson said. “This is something that takes somebody and violates their personal space. This is something that goes to the heart of human dignity.”
“That type of act is so egregious that it belongs in our court system,” he added.
Some committee members expressed concerns that arbitration mighty be preferable in some sexual harassment cases. They cited its efficiency and potential lower costs, especially if claims are proven false.
“I think that, in some cases, arbitration can be a fairer and quicker route than in a courtroom,” Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said. “You tend to favor the district court system. I favor the arbitration system. If there are false claims, I favor the cheapest route.”
Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, also mentioned privacy as a potential advantage of settling cases outside of court, saying victims might be more likely to come forward. But Johnson said that publicity could motivate other victims to come forward and that victims preferring privacy also have that option in court.
“These are not the types of cases where you want to shield perpetrators from exposure,” Johnson said. “You want to encourage this conduct to stop, you want to know about it, and you want others to come forward. It takes the veil of secrecy that goes on away.”
The bill would mostly affect civil penalties for sexual harassment since criminal acts such as battery would likely usurp an arbitration agreement. Additionally, Johnson mentioned that civil penalties may be the only types of penalties perpetrators face if their crimes are reported once the statute of limitation expires.
Johnson put the bill forth following a large bipartisan effort by attorneys general across the country to remove forced arbitration agreements from employee contracts. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has signed a letter in support of the policy.
The wave of bills attempting to curb sexual harassment reflects both the national and local conversation on the subject. In February, an employee in Secretary of State Schedler’s agency filed a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment. Schedler announced Wednesday that he would finish his term but would not seek reelection in 2019.
By Kaylee Poche, LSU Manship School News Service