Many folks have expressed outrage that the system set up by the U.S. Congress to handle sexual harassment complains lodged against members of Congress is obviously rigged to protect the harassers.
But Congress’ system, while different, arguably is no worse than the system in place for everyone else. Sexual harassment victims are routinely denied justice by our nation’s court system.
According to a 2017 analysis by legal research service Lex Machina, very few employees who file federal job discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims make it to court. From January 2009 through July 2017, Lex Machina found that of 54,810 cases that were filed in federal courts and closed, employees bringing the suits won just 584 times in trial, or about 1% of the total. Employers won 7,518 cases, about 14%. Another 3,883 cases, or 7%, were settled on procedural grounds, mostly dismissing the employee’s claims. What happened to the rest of the cases? According to Lex Machina, no one knows for sure why 78% of cases (42,742 cases) were dismissed by either the employee or both the employee and employer.
VICTIMS OF DISCRIMINATION WON IN COURT JUST ONE PERCENT OF THE TIME
Let’s compare the process in and out of Congress for handling sexual harassment complaints:
CONGRESS: Victims of sexual harassment by members of Congress have 180 days to bring a claim to the U.S. Congress Office of Compliance, the office responsible for handling workplace complaints.
EVERYONE ELSE: Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Victims of sexual harassment cannot file a lawsuit until they go through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s complaint process, which can take years. Victims typically must file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the complained of harassment. Federal employees have a much shorter time limit and must file discrimination charges within 45 days from the date of the alleged violation.
CONGRESS: Victims of sexual harassment by a member of Congress are subject to up to 30 days of mandatory counseling, where they are informed of their rights. They then have 15 days to decide whether to submit their claim to mediation. If they reject mediation or no settlement is reached, there is a 30-day cooling off period before they can file a lawsuit or request an administrative hearing. Victims of sexual harassment by members of Congress could potentially file a lawsuit in a couple of months.
EVERYONE ELSE; Within 10 days of the filing of a complaint of sexual harassment, the EEOC sends a notice of the charge to the employer. In some cases, the EEOC asks both the complainant and the employer to take part in mediation. If one party refuses or mediation fails, the EEOC asks the employer to provide a written answer to the sexual harassment charge. The victim then has 20 days to respond to the answer.
The EEOC orders an investigation, which the EEOC says takes an average average of ten months to complete. At the conclusion of the investigation, the EEOC determines whether there is reasonable cause to believe that sexual harassment occurred.
Typically, the EEOC finds no reasonable cause and the complainant is sent a Notice of Right to Sue the harasser.
In the rare circumstance the EEOC finds there is reasonable cause to believe that sexual harassment occurred, the EEOC tries to reach a voluntary settlement with the employer. If a settlement cannot be reached, the case is referred to EEOC legal staff, who decide whether the EEOC should file a lawsuit. The EEOC rarely files a lawsuit unless there is evidence of systemic sexual harassment involving multiple victims.
If the EEOC decides not to file a lawsuit, the EEOC sends the complainant a Notice of Right to Sue.
The vast majority of sexual harassment victims either can’t afford to file a federal lawsuit or their case is dismissed pre-trial after the employer files a motion for summary judgment.
Some fortunate complainants have the resources to pay a private attorney a retainer of many thousands of dollars and proceed to federal court. But most of their cases are quickly dismissed.
A 2006 study by the Federal Judicial Center found that federal judges granted requests by the employer for dismissal of civil rights cases on a motion for summary judgment 73 percent of the time. Moreover, the win rate for victims of employment discrimination was 15% compared to 51% for plaintiffs in the non-employment context.
If a case survives an employer’s motion for summary judgment, it will likely languish in the court system for years.
The truth of the matter is there is no justice for the vast majority of victims of sexual harassment because the system is rigged to protect employers and not workers. That’s true both inside and outside of Congress. And federal judges from privileged backgrounds and posh colleges have mostly worked for corporations. They can’t empathize with workers and feel these cases are trivial disputes that waste of their precious time.
I recommended in my book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, that Congress establish a special court to consider employment discrimination complaints, staffed with specialized judges who really care about and understand the issues.