Senate passes bill ending forced arbitration in sexual misconduct cases

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A bill that would eliminate forced arbitration agreements for sexual assault and harassment survivors in the workplace was approved in the Senate in a voice vote Thursday, and it now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

The legislation ushers in some of the most significant workplace reforms in decades.

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has long championed the bill and is one if its lead authors, said the bill “will give survivors their day in court, allow them to discuss their cases publicly and end the days of institutional protection for harassers.”

“It will help us fix a broken system that protects perpetrators and corporations and end the days of silencing survivors,” Gillibrand said on the Senate floor Thursday.

An aide to the senator told ABC News that the bill will go into effect immediately after Biden signs it into law.

The bill’s passage comes a few years after the #MeToo movement launched cases of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace into the public sphere, revealing just how often men in positions of power settle cases and silence victims by using secretive processes.

These practices have allowed some men to move on to new jobs without having to reveal to the public that claims had ever been filed against them.

This bill would for the first time ensure that survivors of sexual harassment and assault have the option of suing their abusers in state, tribal or federal court.

The House voted on the bill in a bipartisan 335-97 vote earlier in the week. All the votes against it came from Republicans.

“Today, the House took a key step toward ending the shameful practice of forced arbitration of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. This landmark legislation will void agreements currently silencing more than 60 million workers as well as countless more consumers, who have been denied the freedom to pursue recourse for sexual assault and harassment by nursing home contracts, property leases and other legal agreements,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

“With today’s strong, bipartisan vote, the House sent a clear signal to survivors across our nation that they deserve the freedom to seek justice and to make their voices heard,” she added.

According to a summary of the bill, H.R. 4445, the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act “would allow sexual harassment and sexual assault survivors to elect to file a case in a court of law rather than be subject to mandatory, forced arbitration provisions in cases involving sexual harassment or sexual assault disputes.”

By voiding forced arbitration clauses in the case of sexual assault and harassment, “survivors are provided the freedom to decide what legal path works best for them – that can include bringing a claim in court, discussing their case publicly, or seeking another kind of legal remedy. It will eliminate institutional protection for harassers and abusers and give survivors the chance to pursue justice,” according to the bill summary.

Proponents of the bill say the point of the legislation is to get cases of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace out in the open so that predators are punished and unable to repeat their offenses. Typically, in arbitration cases, the facts of a case don’t become public, and the accused can often move on to their next place of employment without any public recourse.

Just before the bill passed, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said it was “long overdue.”

“It is an outrage that women and men who are abused can not seek justice are forced to be quiet are forced to keep the agony inside themselves, it is outrageous,” Schumer said. “For decades, this forced arbitration has deprived millions of people form the basic right to justice.”

Republicans who have opposed the bill say it’s an overreach by the federal government in workplace matters.

One of the most prominent advocates for ending forced arbitration in sexual misconduct cases, however, is Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host who filed a lawsuit against the late Roger Ailes, the former head of the cable network.

“Yes we will make history and have all women’s voices lifted up!” Carlson tweeted ahead of Monday’s vote.

In a statement earlier this month, the White House’s budget backed the bill.

“This bipartisan, bicameral legislation empowers survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment by giving them a choice to go to court instead of being forced into arbitration,” the White House’s budget office, the Office of Management and Budget, said.