Capitol Alert

California bans secret settlements in sexual harassment cases

CA passes bill banning secret harassment settlements

State Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, discusses bill she authored to provide relief for sexual harassment victims. Senate Bill 820 now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown for final approval.
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State Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, discusses bill she authored to provide relief for sexual harassment victims. Senate Bill 820 now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown for final approval.

California will require its workers to take regular sexual harassment training and forbid secret settlements when they sue their employers.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday signed several bills that aim to prevent workplace harassment and help victims of sexual misconduct seek justice.

After explosive reporting last fall uncovered widespread abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement ignited a national discussion on sexual harassment, including in California politics.

Lawmakers responded this session by passing more than a dozen measures that experts said could make the state a national leader on the issue.

Among the proposals Brown signed were:

Senate Bill 820, by Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, which prohibits secret settlements and non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases. While a victim could choose to keep his or her name private, the perpetrator’s identity cannot be confidential. “For decades, secret settlements have been used by wealthy and well-connected perpetrators to offend repeatedly with no public accountability,” Leyva said in a statement. “This critical legislation will empower victims and offer them the opportunity to finally say #TimesUp to those that have hurt them.”

Senate Bill 1300, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, which forbids companies from requiring their workers to sign releases of liability as a condition of continued employment or in exchange for a bonus. “California is stating clearly that we believe and support victims,” Jackson said in a statement.

Senate Bill 1343, by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, which expands a biannual sexual harassment training mandate to nearly all California employees.

Assembly Bill 1619, by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, which provides victims up to a decade to seek civil damages from a sexual assault.

Senate Bill 419, by Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, which prohibits the Legislature from firing or discriminating against an employee or lobbyist who files a harassment complaint. It also requires the Senate and Assembly to maintain records of harassment complaints for at least 12 years.

Assembly Bill 2055, by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Greenbrae, which adds information about the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy to ethics training for lobbyists.

Assembly Bill 3118, by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, which requires a statewide audit of untested rape kits. “Given the current national conversation around sexual assault, it is more important now than ever that survivors of sexual assault know that California is working to get them the justice they deserve,” Chiu said in a statement.

Brown vetoed one of the most high-profile sexual harassment measure of the year. Assembly Bill 3080, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, would have banned forced arbitration agreements, where workers must give up their right to take disputes with their employer to court as a condition of the job.

Critics say these agreements silence vulnerable employees by pushing them into private negotiations with the companies they work for and allow bad behavior to fester behind a curtain of secrecy. Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson and actress Jane Fonda both lobbied at the Capitol for the bill.

Brown, in a veto message, said it “plainly violates federal law,” pointing to recent Supreme Court decisions that overturned state policies which “unduly impeded arbitration.”

The governor vetoed a handful of other bills, including:

Assembly Bill 1867, by Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, D-Grand Terrace, which would have mandated that large companies maintain records of sexual harassment complaints for at least five years after the end of the alleged harasser’s employment. Brown said in his veto message that the time expansion, which could lead to even unsubstantiated claims being maintained for decades, was “unwarranted.”

Assembly Bill 1870, by Reyes, which would have given workers three years, rather than just one, to file an employment discrimination claim with the state. Brown said in his veto message that the current filing deadline “encourages prompt resolution while the memories and evidence are fresh, but also ensures that unwelcome behavior is promptly reported and halted.”

Assembly Bill 3081, by Gonzalez Fletcher, which prohibits employers from firing, discriminating or retaliating against a worker because they have been a victim of sexual harassment. “Most of the provisions in the bill are contained in current law and are therefore unnecesary,” Brown wrote in his veto message.

Assembly Bill 2713, by Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, which requires the state to publish an annual report on sexual harassment reports and settlements in California government agencies. The Bee reported last year that the state does not officially track such cases across departmental lines. Brown said the measure “covers an important topic but current management practices are taking the necessary steps to assure a suitable work environment.”

Earlier in the year, the Legislature extended whistleblower protections to Capitol employees and developed a new process for reporting and investigating internal complaints of sexual harassment.

Current and former staff had complained of a culture of fear and retaliation, which women said discouraged them from reporting pervasive harassment and allowed it to go unpunished. Three members ultimately resigned amid public allegations of sexual misconduct, and complaints were lodged against at least four more.

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