Sexual harassment continues to be a significant problem in workplaces all over the country. Laws at nearly every level protect employees against sexual harassment and related practices, and the need for these protections is evident every day. A class action first filed over a decade ago demonstrates just how widespread and pervasive the problem is and how complicated its legal remedies can be. The case began in 2006, when over a dozen current and former employees of a major jewelry retailer complained of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment. This led to an ongoing proceeding before the American Arbitration Association (AAA) and a federal lawsuit. Jock, et al. v. Sterling Jewelers, Inc., No. 11-160-00655-08, 1st am. complaint (AAA, Jun. 26, 2008); No. 2:08-cv-02875, am. complaint (S.D.N.Y., Dec. 30, 2009). The arbitrator granted class certification in 2015, and as of early 2017, the class had about 69,000 members. The case was back in the news recently, when lawyers for the plaintiffs obtained permission to release sworn statements by their clients to the media.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of several factors, including sex. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. See Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). Sexual harassment may be the subject of a class action complaint if the plaintiffs and their claims meet the criteria, including numerosity of complainants and commonality of claims and defenses. See Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 824 F.Supp. 847 (D. Minn. 1993).
Federal, state, and local employment statutes authorize civil lawsuits against employers for discriminatory practices, including sexual harassment. Many employers require their employees to sign contracts with arbitration clauses, however, which potentially keep them from seeking relief in a court of law. Arbitration is a method of alternative dispute resolution that resembles a civil lawsuit. A neutral arbitrator, who often has experience as a judge, reviews the allegations and evidence from both sides and may conduct hearings. Whether the parties are bound by an arbitrator’s decisions, and the extent to which a court may intervene in or overrule the arbitration, depends in large part on the terms of the employment contract.