Forced arbitration clauses may seem like harmless fine print when you’re applying for work or starting a new job, but they have real consequences when the time comes to enforce your workplace rights.
Too often, forced arbitration clauses are used by companies to hide pervasive workplace sexual harassment and discrimination. By forcing claims of sexual harassment into confidential arbitration proceedings, companies are able to silence employees who have had to endure sexual violence and intimidation in the workplace and hide from public scrutiny. Unfortunately, it is often only through public exposure that companies change their policies to put discriminatory practices to an end.
Below is a story that, because of forced arbitration, we almost never heard. Cases like this one represent the situation millions of employees face every day in America. They describe workplaces where sexual harassment had run rampant for years, where employers swept repeated instances of sexual harassment from known offenders under the rug, and where workers who had the courage to speak up were fired and, if they sued, were ushered out of public view and forced into secret private arbitration.
Karla Amezola worked hard to become a successful news anchor. She was hired in 2011 as a news reporter for Noticias 62 on Estralla TV, a subsidiary of Liberman Broadcasting, Inc., and quickly excelled. In her time as an anchor for the network, Karla was nominated for an Emmy and won the Golden Mike Award in both 2014 and 2016 for her outstanding journalism.
Angulo used sex as a weapon to threaten Karla’s career. He would inform Karla about upcoming opportunities to participate in career-advancing meetings with network executives, but would not allow her to attend unless she agreed to have sex with him—an offer she never accepted. When Karla asked for a raise, Angulo conditioned it on her performing sex acts with him, which she steadfastly refused. In an especially egregious violation, Angulo once cornered Karla, groped her body, and forcefully kissed her against her will.
Karla reported Angulo to Human Resources, but the company did nothing, despite the fact that Karla provided evidence that supported her allegations. It turned out that Karla was not the only woman Angulo sexually harassed, and the company already knew it. Another female anchor came forward with similar complaints, only to be fired. Meanwhile Angulo faced no repercussions for his inexcusable conduct. In February 2017, months after she filed her complaint in court, the TV station fired Karla, too—even though she had won national awards for her journalism the year before.
Karla sued the company and Angulo under state laws designed to protect employees from a hostile work environment, harassment, retaliation, and other harms no person should ever have to experience in the workplace. However, because her contract contained a forced arbitration clause, Karla’s case may never see the inside of a courtroom. Karla is challenging the forced arbitration clause, but existing law makes it an uphill battle.
Normally, as a California resident working for a company in California seeking to enforce her rights under California law, the California state courts would be able to enforce the state’s laws in public proceedings, on the record. Yet, despite the fact that Karla has not filed any federal claims and is not proceeding in federal court, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act, the details of Karla’s case could remain secret.
Unless Karla can overcome the forced arbitration clause she had to sign as a condition of her employment, the state court will be required to send the state law claims into private arbitration proceedings, where the details of her story and her employer’s illegal conduct will be hidden behind closed doors. Alternatively, if Karla is given her day in court, her case could help shine a light on the type of persistent sexual harassment she endured at the TV station, which could lead to more meaningful accountability for perpetrators of sexual harassment, while sparing countless other women the same despicable treatment.