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Girls & Women

The Supreme Court's Latest Decision Could Help Companies Get Away With Sexual Harassment

The Supreme Court came down with a ruling this week that may limit workers’ abilities to hold companies accountable for systemic mistreatment, particularly sexual harassment.

In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the court ruled that it is legal for companies to use clauses in employee contracts to forbid workers from taking collective legal action over workplace issues.

With the ruling, companies can force workers to take workplace disputes into arbitration, a private process that often gives a company the ability to keep systemic issues under wraps and limits an employee's ability to file a class action lawsuit.

According to The New York Times, the decision could affect some 25 million employment contracts.

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The decision could significantly impact efforts to eliminate various workplace issues common in the US, including wage theft and on-the-job discrimination, according to The Washington Post.

In the wake of the resurgent #MeToo movement, women’s rights and labor advocates are particularly concerned that companies will use the ruling to hide widespread sexual harassment.

“It is a real blow to women in the workplace,” Emily Martin, a vice president at the National Women’s Law Center, told HuffPost. “We have seen from the #MeToo movement the power that comes from women’s voices coming together.

“This decision makes it so much harder for employees to challenge harassment or other forms of discrimination, which means those workplace abuses are more likely to continue,” Martin said.

Read More: #MeToo Legal Fund Has Already Helped More Than 2,500 Women

The majority opinion was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed to the Supreme Court last year by President Donald Trump. Gorsuch wrote that existing law was clear, and forbidding arbitration clauses from blocking class action suits could force companies to partake in complicated and expensive lawsuits.

In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the decision was "egregiously wrong" and portrayed it as running counter to the Supreme Court's history of siding with workers' organizing rights. She also argued that the decision will allow abusive employers to more easily hide their misdeeds.

"The inevitable result of today’s decision will be the underenforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well-being of vulnerable workers.” - Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

History has shown that class action lawsuits can force companies to address widespread sexual harassment. In 1997, Home Depot agreed to pay women damages and change its policies after a class action settlement. Currently hundreds of employees at Sterling Jewelers are collectively suing the company over discrimination and sexual harassment, according to HuffPost.  

History has also shown how mandatory arbitration and "non-disclosure agreements" can be used to hide — and ultimately perpetuate — abusive behavior. For example, mandatory arbitration kept news commentator Gretchen Carlson from blowing the whistle on Fox News mogul Roger Ailes' repeated abuse.

According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, around 60 million employees in the US have mandatory arbitration language in their contracts.

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