Articles Posted in #metoo

Just ahead of the bill-signing deadline in October, Governor Newsom signed several worker-friendly bills including AB 51, AB 9, SB 142, and AB 749.

When an employment situation sours and an employee pursues his rights, usually at some point there is talk of settlement.  Almost routinely, employers include a no-rehire provision in any settlement agreement which prohibits the former employee from seeking reemployment with the employer. While this may not seem like a big deal if you work for a small company and have no intention of seeking reemployment with the same people who wronged you in the first place, for individuals who work for large employers, the no-hire provision can create significant hardship. For example, if you work for a major retailer with numerous locations and you are terminated, a no-rehire provision might prevent you from working for that company ever again, in any capacity. That means, even if you wanted to work for a store 100 miles away, you would be barred from doing so. This is particularly problematic for long-term employees who have deep knowledge of the employer’s policies and practices and have been successful in their positions for years- they know the job, and have done it well, and now they are unable to apply for any future job at the company where their skills are a perfect match. This is also a significant problem for people who work for a utility; it may be that there is really only one employer in the area you can work for and a ban on working for that company will prevent you from working, period. The no-rehire provision would require you to either move to a new location or develop skills for an entirely different field. It seems, to many employees, like a final act of retaliation by their former employer.

Starting January 1, 2020, employment dispute settlement agreements cannot contain a no-rehire provision and such provisions are void as a matter of law and public policy. There is an exception, undoubtedly inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements- if an employer has made a good faith determination that the terminated employee engaged in sexual harassment or sexual assault, the employer may prohibit or restrict the terminated employee from obtaining future employment with the employer.

As employers across the country reckon with the impacts of the #MeToo movement, the California legislature and Governor Newsom took decisive action to extend the statute of limitations on certain workplace claims, acknowledging that those who have been targeted by discrimination, harassment, and retaliation do not always come forward immediately.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) prohibits discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against California employees on a variety of bases. The FEHA provides some of the best employment protections in the country, and has been expanded several times over the years to afford additional protections in the workplace. However, one of the greatest hurdles to employees is the statute of limitations. In California, an employee has one year from the date of the unlawful practice to file a charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”). Failure to file a charge within the limitations period waives an employee’s rights to any claims she has under the FEHA. Further complicating matters is that the intake process at the DFEH has several steps and it has been unclear to employees as to when their charge was actually filed, and thus, whether they filed within the one-year period.

On Thursday, Governor Newsom signed AB 9 which extends the one year period to three years starting on January 1, 2020. The bill also specifies filing a complaint means filing an intake form with the DFEH and the operative date of the verified complaint relates back to the filing of the intake form- clarifying what has been a confusing issue for employees over the years. This new statute triples the time an employee has to file their charge, which is particularly valuable for those employees who feel they cannot come forward soon after the adverse employment action.

When you think about it, how could a jury fail to convict a man who sexually assaulted 60 ( yes, that is SIXTY, or sixty, or OMG s-i-x-t-y) women, almost all of whose stories are eerily similar?  That is, he gave them alcohol and drugs, such as Quaaludes, and then sexually assaulted them. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

As we watch the re-trial of the famous Bill Cosby for his sexual assault of Andrea Constand, we have to wonder why he wasn’t convicted the first time (i.e., why did the case result in a mistrial?) and, given the ascent of the #metoo movement, with the accompanying consciousness raising, whether justice will be done in the retrial. The jury hasn’t yet started to deliberate but some lessons can already be learned.

First, of course, the burden of proof is simply higher in a criminal case than in a civil case, and there are good policy reasons for that. We want to be very sure when we put someone behind bars. Second, the jury pretty much never has the entire story. In the first trial, the judge only allowed one other victim to testify, and in the re-trial, 5 victims have testified. In all cases, for reasons both right and wrong, not all evidence is heard by the jury. And lastly, it is unusual for a civil case involving incidents so far into the distant past to proceed, which does provide reasons to sow reasonable doubt, and to question witnesses’ and victims’ memories and motives, in this criminal case.

There are so many thoughts, legal theories and emotions swirling around and within me, as a 35-year lawyer (here, I mean practicing law for 35 years, not 35 years of age!) watching the #metoo movement unfold.

First, social norms are so well ingrained that we, as a society, often do not question what should be questioned.  The line between appropriate behavior and inappropriate but- we-have-to-put-up-with-it behavior is simply blurred.  I am grateful beyond belief to those brave souls, those who question the way things are, for shinning a floodlight on these deep dark not-so-secret societal norms.

Second, my own experiences are like an onion. The outer skin protects a lot of interior sections of which I am not always so cognizant. When peeled back, the memories are hazy but powerful. My outer skin is: no, no, lucky me, I am fortunate and have not been subject to sexual harassment.  But it isn’t true. I feel this way due to years of denial and a well-honed ability to minimize.  It is my denial mechanism that has made me a successful lawyer and advocate.  But this ability to minimize, ignore and excuse doesn’t help change society, and change is what we need.