U.S. Senate passes bill to void gag clauses in sexual harassment cases

The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is seen as the sun sets on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 26, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott
  • Bill to block enforcement of some NDAs passes unanimously
  • Comes after ban on forced arbitration of harassment claims

(Reuters) - The U.S. Senate has passed a bill with bipartisan support that would limit the enforcement of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) in cases involving workplace sexual harassment and assault.

The Senate approved the bill known as the Speak Out Act late Thursday by voice vote, meaning no formal roll call vote was taken.

An estimated one-third of private sector workers in the U.S. have signed agreements not to disclose details of their employment or disparage their employers. The Speak Out Act, which was introduced in the wake of the #MeToo movement, only applies to agreements workers sign before a legal dispute arises.

The bill was introduced in July, a few months after Congress passed a bill supported by business groups that bans the enforcement of mandatory arbitration agreements in cases involving sexual harassment and assault. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in March.

Tens of millions of workers have signed agreements requiring the arbitration of legal disputes, and the new law is one of the most impactful policy changes triggered by the #MeToo movement.

Supporters of the Speak Out Act say businesses can use NDAs to prevent victims of harassment and sexual assault from speaking publicly, which allows harassers to continue their illegal conduct. More than a dozen states including California, Washington, and Illinois have adopted laws that limit the enforcement of NDAs.

The Speak Out Act was sponsored in the Senate by Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. A version of the bill was introduced in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support in June.

Read more:

U.S. Congress passes ban on forced arbitration of worker sex abuse claims

Speak Out Act, to waive NDAs in sexual harassment cases, advances

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.