The attorneys from Falls Legal recently returned from the 2017 National Employment Lawyers Association convention in San Antonio, Texas. As part of this year’s program, NELA was proud to host a panel on “Honoring Courageous Plaintiffs.” Gretchen Carlson and her extraordinary legal team composed of New York attorneys Nancy Smith and Marty Hyman attended and received one of the three awards given this year. Carlson, as many already know, was previously co-host of “Fox and Friends” on the Fox News network. In July 2016, Carlson filed a lawsuit against then Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes claiming sexual harassment. After Carlson’s complaint, dozens of other women stepped forward to also accuse Ailes of harassment and he was ultimately forced to resign. Mrs. Carlson’s lawsuit was subsequently settled for reportedly $20 million. In the wake of Carlson’s high-profile suit, attorneys across the country have noticed an up-tick in inquiries relating to workplace sexual harassment, suggesting that Mrs. Carlson’s complaint has empowered women with the courage to step forward. Some important lessons can be learned from Carlson’s case.
Lesson 1: Assemble Your Legal Team Before You Complain.
If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, you should immediately contact an employment attorney. This is exactly what Mrs. Carlson did before she complained. An attorney can provide you helpful information on how to complain, when to complain, and what to expect if you complain. Additionally, if you anticipate the possibility the company may retaliate against you for complaining, an attorney can advise you on anti-retaliation laws and will be ready to take immediate action if retaliation occurs.
Lesson 2: No One Thinks It Will Happen To Them, Until It Happens To Them.
A common thread we have seen at Falls Legal over the years is that almost every victim of workplace sexual harassment never thought it would happen to them until it did. They never viewed themselves as “litigious” or someone who would ever bring a claim against an employer. In fact, many of these women have never been involved in the legal system at all, other than to maybe purchase or sell a home. Mrs. Carlson grew up in the Midwest and always believed that she could achieve success based solely on talent and work ethic. She also never believed it would happen to her until it did. Never be afraid to contact an attorney and stand up for what you believe is right.
Lesson 3: Sexual Harassment is Alive and Well in the Workplace.
Workplace sexual harassment can happen anywhere. It happens to minimum wage workers and it happens to executives, including news anchors like Mrs. Carlson. It happens in virtually all industries, from factories to corporate offices. It even happens at law firms. People assume in the 21st century that companies should get it right by now and that sexual harassment only occurs in primitive settings. This is simply incorrect.
Lesson 4: You Cannot Be Afraid to Complain.
Complaining about sexual harassment is difficult. No one wants to complain. It takes courage to complain. However, the United States Supreme Court requires sexual harassment victims to complain so that an employer can have an opportunity to learn about what is happening and do the right thing and correct the problem. That is the purpose of the anti-retaliation provisions – to protect sexual harassment victims against retaliation for complaining. Again, you should reach out to a skilled employment lawyer before complaining to ensure you are complaining through the appropriate channels and ready to take action should retaliation occur.
Lesson 5: Be Wary of Arbitration Agreements.
A big component of Mrs. Carlson’s case was a dispute over whether she had signed a binding arbitration agreement. Forced workplace arbitration has cropped its ugly head up more frequently in the employment arena over the years. Many employees do not even know if they have signed an arbitration agreement. They can be buried in Employee Handbooks, job applications, or other employment documents. Forced arbitration clauses in employment agreements deprive sexual harassment victims of the right to a jury trial and require employees to adjudicate their employment claims behind closed doors in secret so that no one ever knows the facts or result of what happened. Again, skilled employment lawyers can help you review any arbitration agreement you may have signed and discuss any options available to challenge the agreement in court.
As a side note, same-sex sexual harassment and sexual harassment perpetrated by women on men are also actionable under federal employment law.