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FMG Law Blog Line

Sexual Harassment Settlements in New Jersey – Out Of The Dark But Into The Unknown

Posted on: March 28th, 2019

By: Justin Boron

Earlier this month, New Jersey joined the growing group of states that – spurred on by the #MeToo movement – have passed laws regulating settlements of sexual harassment and discrimination claims.

With an asserted purpose of improving transparency and exposing workplace harassment to public view, New Jersey and other states, including California, New York, and Washington,[1] have made confidentiality agreements and non-disclosure agreements unenforceable in sexual harassment cases.[2] Several other states have similar bills pending in their respective legislatures.[3] And Congress similarly has eliminated the tax deduction for settlement of sexual harassment cases when there is a confidentiality clause related to the sexual harassment claims that is included within the settlement agreement.[4] Notably, however, the recent amendment to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is broader than many of its counterparts because it encompasses – in addition to sexual harassment claims – claims based on discrimination, retaliation, and harassment involving protected classes beyond sex.

Consistent with the national conversation on this issue, the passage of the New Jersey law invigorated debate about whether the legislation is constitutional, whether it is practicable, and whether it will ultimately achieve the end that it seeks.

At this point, it is simply too early to tell. But the legislation is raising interesting issues to watch as it takes hold in the legal practice across the country.

Is a confidentiality provision important to employers?

NDAs and confidentiality agreements have become part and parcel of almost every settlement agreement. They are so standard that attorneys regularly assume they will be included in a final settlement agreement without ever mentioning them in the negotiations. But the presumption begs the question of how important confidentiality is to an employer in a settlement agreement.

The answer will likely depend on the particular case and the particular employer, but typically employers will insist on a confidentiality agreement so the chatter about the dispute does not live on in the public eye (particularly through social media) even after the matter is resolved. Having said that, confidentiality is probably more important in a particularly bad sexual harassment case against a particularly high-profile employer than in an isolated claim against a mid-sized, single-shop employer. Going forward, counsel should seek input from their client on this issue given that federal law could impact tax treatment of the settlement payment and given that state law might outright prohibit it.

Will plaintiffs actually disclose the settlement and nature of the case?

This question bears on whether the legislation will achieve the transparency that it set out to accomplish. Advocates of the legislation presumably would not want to require an alleged victim to disclose his or her claim involuntarily. Indeed, some of the state laws passed, like New Jersey’s, would allow an employee to keep a settlement confidential if he or she chose to. If prior experience is a guide, many plaintiffs are relieved to have resolved what would be a difficult case involving public testimony about a sensitive subject. In those cases, an express confidentiality agreement might not even be necessary (although typically advisable from a belt and suspenders perspective).

Will it lower the amount that an employer is willing to pay to settle a case?

Again, the data set is not there yet to answer this question. But it is a legitimate concern. If an employer expects to confront continuing publicity about sexual harassment in its workplace even after settlement, particularly for a case where the employer might question the credibility of the allegations, it might be less inclined to pay as much money to resolve a single claim. Another reason would be that a public settlement could invite “copycat” claims, and the initial settlement amount would set a precedent for the value of each claim. This risk would motivate an employer to keep publicly disclosed settlements low to avoid a run of high dollar demands.

Final Takeaway

Generally, we expect employers to view this legislation skeptically, and it will continue to stoke critics of governmental restraints on the freedom of contract. But the silver lining is that the legislation elevates confidentiality agreements from being an after-thought in settlement discussions to a topic that attorneys must discuss with their clients and each other before reaching a final resolution.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Justin Boron at [email protected].

[1] See Rev. Code Wash. (ARCW) § 49.44.210; NY CLS Gen Oblig § 5-336; Cal Code Civ Proc § 1001.
[2] See N.J. Senate Bill 121 at https://legiscan.com/NJ/text/S121/2018.
[3] See https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/states-take-action-against-nondisclosure-agreements.aspx.  For a full list of state legislation, see https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/the-sexual-harassment-legislation-watch-24212/.
[4] See 26 U.S. Code § 162.

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