Secret settlements and non-disclosure agreements are officially prohibited in sexual harassment cases after the passing of a new law this year.
The conduct of non-disclosure agreements and secret settlements in sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual discrimination cases in the workplace in California are now prohibited according to Senate Bill 820, now law, written by State Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino.
SB 820, also known as the Stand Together Against Non-Disclosures Act or STAND, was signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2018 and has took effect Jan. 1.
The law applies to both public and private employers in California, including the California State Legislature. SB 820 was one of several laws passed as a result of the #MeToo movement, a movement to raise awareness of sexual assault and hold perpetrators accountable.
“This critical legislation will empower victims and offer them the opportunity to finally say #TimesUp to those that have hurt them,” Leyva said in a press release.
“SB 820 will finally lift the curtain of secrecy that has continued to protect these perpetrators by forcing their victims to remain silent.”
Non-disclosure agreements, also commonly known as confidentiality agreements, are legally-binding contracts that place limits on the use of specific information between people or organizations.
In sexual harassment or assault cases in the workplace, non-disclosure agreements are used by the perpetrator to prohibit the survivor from speaking about the incident and provides the survivor with monetary compensation in return.
According to the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is behavior characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation.
Sexual harassment does not have to involve individuals of the opposite sex and only becomes illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in the victim being fired or denoted.
Although many sexual harassment survivors willingly sign a non-disclosure agreement to keep the incident private and away from media attention, the consequences of these agreements can be seen through future incidents of sexual harassment or assault from the same perpetrator in the same workplace.
Jesus Espinoza, freshman legal studies major, said the law could serve as a reinforcement of the preservation of morals and values in the workplace.
“The law secures an ethical workplace for its employees,” Espinoza said. “The victims will have a greater chance of speaking up and defending themselves in court and the perpetrator won’t have much power over them anymore.”
Espinoza said that without the option of a non-disclosure agreement, sexual harassment survivors will have no choice but to go to court and file a case, which increases their chances of holding the perpetrator accountable.
“Even if the victim doesn’t win the case, the records will still be filed and will be used as references for any future sexual harassment cases involving the same perpetrator,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza said filing cases that deal with the same perpetrator is similar to the way a petition works.
In order for a petition to be heard, one must obtain a certain number of signatures of individuals who support it.
In order for a case to be won by the survivor, cases similar to that of sexual harassment must be brought up constantly to gain attention and possibly increase the likelihood of the plaintiff winning.
“We have to follow the system of ethics and morals that our government has provided us with in order to bring justice,” Espinoza said.
According to a survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending street harassment for men and women, 81% of women and 43% of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment through their lifetime.
Of those women, 38% experienced the worst forms of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to the report.
Amelia Bronson, freshman education major, said the law could open doors for many sexual harassment survivors and provides them with an opportunity to speak about their experiences in court.
“The perpetrators can be held more accountable for the crime they commit and the victims will possibly have an easier way to come forward and say the truth,” Bronson said.
Bronson said that although California is one of the few states that actually passed this law, she would like to see other states pass similar laws.
“By spreading laws like SB 820, we can allow everyone to have an opportunity to receive the justice they deserve and take away that constant fear,” Bronson said.
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reported that out of every 1,000 rapes, only 5 perpetrators will be incarcerated and out of 1,000 sexual assaults, only 230 are actually reported to the police.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported that 8% of rapes occur at work and 81% of women experience a long-term or short-term traumatic impacts after the incident.
Although the new law has received support from sexual harassment survivors and other legislators, many believe that the law can possibly hurt sexual harassment victims, especially women, more than it could help them.
Jennifer Trejo, freshman criminology major, said that even though the survivors have the opportunity to go to court and testify, the chances of them winning the case are low because most of the time they are going up against big corporations.
“I like the idea of this law, but there is no gain for the victim if they lose,” Trejo said. “These big companies have money and will get the best lawyers in order to protect their reputation and have more resources than the victim.”
Trejo said that although the survivors will be able to share their stories more openly, they still will not get anything out of it if big corporations use their money to protect themselves.
Abrelle Negrete, freshman education major, said that as a survivor, she would rather know that her case is on the record even if she didn’t win it.
“As a survivor, I would prefer that at the very least my case makes it to court and gets filed in the records,” Negrete said. “It’s about much more than the money; it’s about raising awareness for other survivors.”
Negrete said her former high school had her sign a non-disclosure agreement after she reported the sexual harassment incident and would remove her from her preferred classes if she did not sign the agreement.
“They wanted to protect their reputation and didn’t want any bad press so they practically made me sign the agreement or else they were going to take me out of my AP classes,” Negrete said.
Negrete said the law could show employers that they can no longer use hush money to prevent survivors from speaking as well as hold them more accountable for their actions.
Andrea Lopez, freshman psychology major, said she was not previously aware of how non-disclosure agreements worked, but is pleased to know that there is now a law that exists that prohibits them.
“I didn’t even know non-disclosure agreements existed and to think that perpetrators would actually go through a process to hush their victims is surprising,” Lopez said.
“Survivors can now go to court and report the incidents without having the consequences of signing a contract.”
Alonda Campos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.