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As we’ve seen in recent months, many sexual harassers have managed to escape repercussions and even public scrutiny for their actions for years—in some cases, this is simply because they are so powerful that their victims have been too intimidated to come forward. For example, according to the New York Times, Harvey Weinstein used his immense wealth to pay off the women he sexually harassed, sometimes for decades, to prevent them from coming forward. Despite the power of Hollywood big-wigs—their money and their ability to ruin careers—their victims could still, at least theoretically, come forward and file lawsuits against them for the harm they’d done.
When it comes to elected officials and those who work for them, however, the process is more complicated. A person working on Capitol Hill who is sexually harassed by a member of Congress or co-worker has only 180 days within which to file a written report the sexual harassment. To do so, she must first call the Congressional Office of Compliance to obtain the necessary documents. Then, the person who was harassed is required to go to 30 days of counseling. After, the person complaining of harassment must sign a confidentiality agreement and attend 30 days of mediation with the offender. The offender is provided with an attorney—paid for by the taxpayers. The accuser must pay for her own counsel. If the parties settle, the agreement will almost certain include a non-disclosure agreement, which prevents the accuser from discussing what happened at all. Even if they settle, the offender pays nothing—the settlement is paid for, again, by the taxpayers. A reporter for The Hill found that the Office of Compliance spends hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer—sometimes millions—money every year to settle cases on behalf of harassers.
If no settlement is reached, the accuser must wait an additional 30 days before proceeding to an administrative hearing or filing a lawsuit. This is a total of a mandatory 90 days of waiting before being able to take further action. Throughout this time, the accuser may even have to continue working in the same office—sometimes, even in the same room—as the offender.
The fact that this is the process in place to handle harassment in Congress is jaw-dropping. It is already immensely difficult for employees to speak out about sexual harassment, especially when the harassment is perpetrated by their boss. Speaking out is even more difficult when the harasser is someone with an immense amount of financial or political power. This process makes that even harder through the numerous hurdles it establishes, from the miniscule 180 day window to complain and the required 90 days of waiting, to the mediation and the prospect of continuing to work with the harasser. The system in place incentivizes sexual harassment because it relieves those responsible of it of any responsibility: they do not need to pay for an attorney, they do not need to pay for the settlement, and they do not need to worry about being held to account in the public eye because their victims have been required to sign confidentiality agreements. As Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) has put it, the Office of Compliance is “an enabler of harassment . . . because of the way it’s constructed.”
Thankfully, not all procedures for holding harassers accountable are as onerous as the one in place in Congress—but the process of moving forward with a lawsuit against a harasser and holding that person accountable can be tricky and complicated. The attorneys at the California Civil Rights Law Group have extensive experience in handling sexual harassment cases, and are prepared to guide you through the process to a favorable and just outcome.
Editor’s Note: The California Civil Rights Law Group is a Bay Area law firm dedicated to fighting for women to feel safe at work and to be treated as equals. Sexual harassment is not a thing of the past. It persists in today’s workforce whether you work at a big company or a small mom and pop shop, even in allegedly progressive cities such as Oakland or San Francisco. And all forms of sexual harassment should be taken seriously, as it can be devastating, traumatic and destructive. If you want to share your story with us, we’re here to listen. If you want to learn more about your rights, call us to set up a case evaluation in San Francisco Bay Area, Oakland or Marin.