Texas joins fight calling on Congress to end secret sexual harassment settlements

AUSTIN — Texas is now part of the fight to end forced arbitration in cases of workplace sexual harassment.

Attorney General Ken Paxton joined a bipartisan group of 56 states and territories Monday, urging Congress to pass legislation that would ensure sexual harassment victims can take their cases to court.

Forced arbitration is a system many employers use to resolve workplace sexual harassment claims through private mediators instead of taking claims to court. Employees are often made to sign arbitration agreements in the “fine print” of their contracts, a letter sent to the U.S. House and Senate explains.

The attorneys general and chief legal counsel of all participating states and territories sent the letter Monday asking Congress to end forced arbitration.

“Congress today has both opportunity and cause to champion the rights of victims of sexual harassment in the workplace by enacting legislation to free them from the injustice of forced arbitration and secrecy when it comes to seeking redress from egregious misconduct condemned by all concerned Americans,” the attorneys general wrote.

In December, it was reported that Corpus Christi Rep. Blake Farenthold used $84,000 in public funds to settle a sexual harassment claim against him. The Republican vowed to repay the public funds but has not done so yet. Farenthold also pledged to fix the system of secrecy surrounding sexual harassment cases.

The coalition’s push follows months of reports about sexual harassment and assault across the entertainment, business and political arenas. The movement gave rise to the hashtags #MeToo and #TimesUp, and the Texas Capitol was forced to confront its own reports of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.

The Texas House revamped its sexual harassment policy to better outline unacceptable behavior and included a required training video for all staff and members to complete. The Texas Senate is in the process of reviewing its policy and deciding if an update is needed.

The Texas attorney general’s office also had a top aide resign in December after he called the women behind the #MeToo movement “pathetic.” Associate Deputy Attorney General Andrew Leonie wrote on Facebook, “Aren’t you also tired of all the pathetic ‘me too’ victim claims? If every woman is a ‘victim’, so is every man. If everyone is a victim, no one is. Victim means nothing anymore.”

Marc Rylander, Paxton’s director of communications, said in a December news release that Leonie’s Facebook post does not reflect the attorney general’s office values. Leonie left his position a day after he posted about the #MeToo movement.

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