JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A Missouri bill to strengthen employment contracts that require sexual harassment, discrimination and other work-related issues to be decided through arbitration has died an unusually early death that came as Congress considers moving in the opposite direction.
At issue is legislation that would have ramped-up the enforceability of arbitration agreements, common contracts in which businesses require employees to settle misconduct lawsuits through private companies instead of in court. If enacted, the bill would have made it harder for courts to toss out the agreements.
The Republican sponsor of the Missouri bill, Rep. Kevin Corlew, said compared to potentially pricey and time-consuming court battles, arbitration is “more cost effective and fair at the same time.” It’s part of a broader push led by some Missouri Republicans to limit lawsuits in an attempt to make the legal climate friendlier to businesses.
But the bill faced bipartisan pushback, and critics have noted Congress is considering moving in the opposite direction in the wake of a tidal wave of sexual misconduct allegations in the #MeToo movement.
For example, former Fox News Channel CEO Roger Ailes sued former anchor Gretchen Carlson last year after she said publicly she was fired for refusing his sexual advances. Her allegations led to his ouster. Ailes, who died in May, said her contract prohibited her from going public until both sides first tried closed-door arbitration.
Nationally, a bill by U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, would ban employment contracts that force arbitration in cases of alleged sexual harassment and discrimination. Critics say the contracts sometimes mean victims of sexual harassment unwittingly waive their rights to take allegations to court and mean claims of misconduct remain secret.
Momentum for Corlew’s bill dwindled in the GOP-led House after Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican and a candidate for U.S. Senate, joined his colleagues across the country in signing a letter to support the federal bill.
The attorneys general wrote that many employees likely won’t even realize that they agreed to go to arbitration until they’re sexually harassed and try to go to court, and they criticized the often secretive nature of the proceedings.
“Ending mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims would help put a stop to the culture of silence that protects perpetrators at the cost of their victims,” the officials wrote.
Corlew’s bill died after he missed a deadline to bring it back up for debate, although there’s still a chance that similar bills pending in the House and Senate could revive the issue.