Arizona legislators are considering adopting legislation banning and rendering unenforceable agreements by employers or others to keep confidential or otherwise restrict the disclosure of allegations or other information about sexual harassment or sexual assault. If enacted as proposed, the proposed legislation could significantly impact employers, sexual harassment and sexual assault victims and witnesses, persons accused of sexual assault or harassment and others’ ability to negotiate, enforce or comply with provisions in new or preexisting employment policies, and settlement, severance and other agreements requiring confidentiality of or restricting disclosure of information about findings or allegations of sexual harassment or assault and related factual information.
As currently proposed, Arizona House Bill 2020 (HB 2020) would amend Section 1. Title 12, chapter 6, article 12, Arizona Revised Statutes, to include add a new section 12-720 that would read as follows
12-720. Confidentiality agreements; disclosure of information relating to sexual assault or sexual harassment; applicability
A. A CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT THAT RESTRICTS THE DISCLOSURE OF FACTUAL INFORMATION THAT IS RELATED TO A SEXUAL ASSAULT OR SEXUAL HARASSMENT, INCLUDING FACTUAL INFORMATION THAT IS RELATED TO AN ALLEGATION OF OR ATTEMPTED SEXUAL ASSAULT OR SEXUAL HARASSMENT, IS AGAINST THIS STATE’S PUBLIC SAFETY AND POLICY AND IS VOID AND UNENFORCEABLE.
B. A PERSON MAY NOT ENTER INTO A CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT THAT RESTRICTS THE DISCLOSURE OF FACTUAL INFORMATION THAT IS RELATED TO AN ALLEGATION OF OR ATTEMPTED SEXUAL ASSAULT OR SEXUAL HARASSMENT BY AN ELECTED OFFICIAL.
C. THIS SECTION DOES NOT APPLY TO THE DISCLOSURE OF A MINOR CRIME VICTIM’S MEDICAL OR PERSONAL IDENTIFYING INFORMATION OR TO OTHER INFORMATION THAT IS SPECIFICALLY PROTECTED FROM DISCLOSURE BY LAW.
Based on this currently proposed language, enactment of HB 2020’s sexual harassment and assault confidentiality restrictions almost certainly will dramatically impact both the financial, reputation and legal liability exposures of individuals accused of sexual harassment or assault and their employers or others potentially responsible for the investigation, management or liability for the alleged harasser’s behavior, behavior, as well as the privacy, retaliation and other concerns of sexual harassment or assault victims and witnesses. Certainly, HB 2020 would preclude or limit the ability of executives or other individuals accused of sexual harassment or assault from hiding their isolated or recurrent actual or alleged misconduct behind confidentiality or nondisclosure provisions in settlement or other contracts, handbooks, investigation, compliance or other policies. Likewise, HB 2020’s prohibitions against agreements requiring the maintenance of confidentiality of information about alleged or actual sexual harassment or assaults also can be expected to make it more difficult for employers to defend or mitigate their exposure to liability for alleged sexual harassment or assaults by making it much easier for alleged victims, their attorneys and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other government agencies to investigate and obtain evidence about the conduct of the accused and the actions of his or her employer to other events or charges of sexual harassment or assault. Among other things, more free availability of this information is likely to make it easier for sexual harassment or assault victims, their plaintiff’s lawyers and the EEOC or other agencies and advocates to uncover, pursue enforcement and recover damages from employers through individual, class action or serial sexual harassment investigations and lawsuits as well as to rebut efforts of employers and those accused to mitigate damages and other liability.
While many might celebrate these expected effects of HB 2020 in helping to hold harassers and their employers more accountable for misconduct and to safeguard others from becoming future victims, HB 2020 also carries the risk of a number of potentially undesirable side effects for sexual harassment and assault victims and witnesses, employer and other investigators and those wrongfully accused. Because victims and witnesses to sexual harassment often fear embarrassment, retaliation or other adverse consequences from their report or involvement in a charge or investigation, sexual harassment and other policies and the employers and others responsible for administering and enforcing sexual harassment policies typically offer assurances of confidentiality and other nondisclosure to encourage and reassure victims and witnesses to report concerning behavior and to help prevent retaliation against victims and witnesses reporting or cooperating in sexual harassment and assault investigations. While HB 2020 includes a provision that appears intended to preserve the confidentiality of the identity and medical information of victims, the technical concealment of names and medical information as a practical matter generally provides an inadequate shield for victims or witnesses when other information otherwise remains discoverable. Consequently, confidentiality restrictions like those proposed in HB 2020 could backfire against these victims and witnesses and employers legitimately working to protect them by enhancing victim and witness reluctance to report or cooperate in sexual harassment investigations as well as inflict substantial and irreversible injury upon the personal and professional reputations of individuals wrongfully accused. The confidentiality prohibitions of HB 2020 are likely to undermine the ability of employers, victims and witnesses to use confidentiality requirements legitimately to prevent unjustified retaliation, loss of privacy and other adverse consequences to victims, witnesses and those wrongfully accused. Likewise, restrictions on confidentiality also can be expected to undermine the ability of victims to secure compensation from guilty parties and their employers without litigation as accused parties and their employer as the inability to enforce confidentiality will undermine the settlement value of questionable charges by enhancing the potential need to dispute and defend such charges to avoid becoming targeted by other accusations concurrently or in the future.
Obviously, these and other potential implications of HB 2020 make it highly advisable that businesses, management, individuals, insurers and others potentially subject to HB 2020 will want to carefully assess the implications of HB 2020 and provide input to the Arizona legislature. Given the wave of recent publicity triggered over the past year from widespread reporting of sexual harassment and related charges and resulting resignations and lawsuits and settlements involving sexual harassment charges levied against high profile entertainers, business leaders and others, employers, management and business leaders, victims, witnesses, insurers and other operating outside the jurisdiction of Arizona law can anticipate that they also may face similar legislative, regulatory or other challenges to confidentiality and nondisclosure policies and agreements concerning sexual harassment and assault allegations, investigations and settlements. Because of these and other concerns, employers, victims, witnesses, investigators, insurers and others with responsibility for or involvement with sexual harassment and assault concerns across the nation should both carefully monitor these developments as well as the reliability and effectiveness of their past and existing sexual harassment, investigations, anti-retaliation, confidentiality and other related policies, confidentiality and nondisclosure provisions in settlement agreements, and other potentially impacted agreements, policies and practices. Employers and other individuals or organizations in the scope of potential liability for sexual harassment or assault charges also may wish to consider strengthening existing anti-harassment policies, investigation practices, insurance coverage and other prevention and risk management arrangements to mitigate their sexual harassment risks.
About The Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for management work, coaching, teachings, and publications.
Ms. Stamer works with businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management and compliance. Her day-to-day work encompasses both labor and employment issues, as well as independent contractor, outsourcing, employee leasing, management services and other nontraditional service relationships. She supports her clients both on a real-time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with all aspects for workforce and human resources management, including, recruitment, hiring, firing, compensation and benefits, promotion, discipline, compliance, trade secret and confidentiality, noncompetition, privacy and data security, safety, daily performance and operations management, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy.
Well-known for her extensive work with health, insurance, financial services, technology, energy, manufacturing, retail, hospitality, governmental and other highly regulated employers, her nearly 30 years’ of experience encompasses domestic and international businesses of all types and sizes including extensive involvement for more than providing training for management and others and helping management, liability insurers and others to develop, administer, enforce, defend and mitigate sexual harassment and other related employment risks.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other concerns by her service as a management consultant, business coach and consultant and policy strategist as well through her leadership participation in professional and civic organizations such her involvement as the Vice Chair of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association; Executive Director of the Coalition on Responsible Health Policy and its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; former Gulf Coast TEGE Council Exempt Organization Coordinator; a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence; former board member and Vice President of the Managed Care Association; past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; a member and policy adviser to the National Physicians’ Council for Healthcare Policy; current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee; current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section; ABA Real Property Probate and Trust (RPTE) Section former Employee Benefits Group Chair, immediate past RPTE Representative to ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative, and Defined Contribution Committee Co-Chair, past Welfare Benefit Committee Chair and current Employee Benefits Group Fiduciary Responsibility Committee Co-Chair, Substantive and Group Committee member, Membership Committee member and RPTE Representative to the ABA Health Law Coordinating Council; past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a former member of the Board of Directors, Treasurer, Member and Continuing Education Chair of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.
Ms. Stamer also is a widely published author, highly popular lecturer, and serial symposia chair, who publishes and speaks extensively on sexual harassment and other human resources, labor and employment, employee benefits, compensation, occupational safety and health, and other leadership, performance, regulatory and operational risk management, public policy and community service concerns, who has received high praise for workshops and training programs she conducts on “What To Do When Your Employee’s Personal Life Becomes Your Business,” “Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘N Role in the Workplace,” and other sexual harassment, investigations, privacy and related programs for SHRM, the American Bar Association, ALI-ABA, American Health Lawyers, Society of Human Resources Professionals, the Southwest Benefits Association, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, Lexis-Nexis, Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, the HCCA, ISSA, HIMSS, Modern Healthcare, Managed Healthcare, Institute of Internal Auditors, Society of CPAs, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other symposia and publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other prominent publications and speaks and conducts training for a broad range of professional organizations and for clients on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and many other publications.
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