The Me Too and Time’s Up movements rekindled the nation’s collective awareness concerning sexual harassment and abuse which had all but disappeared since the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.
What contributed to this lack of discourse concerning the prevalence of sexual harassment in our society over the past 25 years? The use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) and confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements surely played a part — as have mandatory arbitration agreements required by employers.
NDAs and confidentiality clauses are standard fare when parties settle sexual harassment and abuse cases.
In exchange for a settlement payment — such as the $130,000 payment made on President Trump’s behalf to Stormy Daniels — the victim of harassment agrees not to discuss the claims made, or the terms, and sometimes even the existence, of the settlement.
These agreements usually also call for significant financial penalties should the plaintiff violate the confidentiality clause. For example, in the agreement at issue in the Trump-Daniels lawsuit, Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, is required to pay the president $1 million for each of her breaches of the confidentiality clause. Trump’s lawyer claims she has violated the terms 20 times.
Is this agreement enforceable?
Probably not because the $1 million liquidated damage amount for each breach appears to be an unenforceable penalty rather than an estimation of likely damages should confidentiality be breached. For the same reason, it also isn’t fair and most plaintiffs’ attorneys would never allow a client to sign such a provision (unless their client is desperate for the money or the attorney believes the clause is unenforceable).
So far, however, this confidentiality clause has kept Daniels relatively quiet. Had there been no such provision, or if the court in the pending litigation refuses to uphold it, she undoubtedly will "tell all" of the sordid details in a book deal, which is likely to follow — and, regardless, she may possibly do so on "60 Minutes" this weekend.
Meanwhile, as the porn star touted passing a polygraph test to prove she’s not lying about her 2006-2007 tryst with Trump, another woman is suing to get out from under a 2016 confidentiality agreement so she can discuss her alleged affair with Trump. This week former Playboy Playmate of the Year, Karen McDougal, has filed suit in Los Angeles.
Confidentiality clauses serve useful purposes.
They protect the reputation of the alleged harasser when frivolous claims are brought. They also protect the plaintiff who does not want it known that she was subjected to sexual abuse or that she sued her employer. Finally, confidentiality clauses make it easier to settle cases because they protect the good will of the employer.
In fact, companies will pay more to a victim of harassment as hush money to avoid the impact of these types of allegations on their bottom-lines. Bad publicity from these cases can be devastating, as Harvey Weinstein’s now bankrupt company recently learned.
On the other hand, as seen lately, confidentiality clauses enable harassers to continue their pattern of abuse and expose other unsuspecting victims to this same treatment. Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of these provisions, the time has come to limit the use of these "gag-orders" and Congress agrees.
Buried deep inside the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is a provision which disallows tax deductions for monies employers pay to harassment victims and for legal fees if the parties enter into a confidentiality agreement. In essence, since late December parties must choose between deductibility and confidentiality.
For now this seems to be a fair middle ground. It enables companies to protect themselves and alleged harassers against frivolous claims by insisting upon confidentiality while at the same time also providing victims with some leverage to insist upon no confidentiality.
Lawyers of course will find some work-arounds, whether through stronger clauses confirming that the settlement is not an admission of liability or requiring the victim to confirm in an agreement — whether or not it is true — that there simply was no harassment. The settlement value of harassment cases also might go down somewhat to make up for a company’s loss of the tax deduction when it is insisting upon confidentiality.
Only time will tell whether this law goes far enough to expose harassers and deter their behavior in the first place.