HARRISBURG — Amid a wave of high-profile sexual harassment cases across the nation, a group of Pennsylvania senators on Wednesday unveiled legislation seeking to ban nondisclosure agreements in cases involving sexual harassment and assault.
The legislation, pushed by a group of Democratic senators, seeks to remove the veil of secrecy that often accompanies settlements involving sexual harassment, stalking, or assault.
Such secrecy allows offenders in the workplace and elsewhere to continue predatory behavior unchecked, said Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks), who is championing the bill.
"It's in darkness, it's in quiet, it's in silence that this madness is allowed to continue," said Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia), who joined Schwank at a news conference in the Capitol.
The bill would ban agreements that prohibit public disclosure of names of people accused of sexual harassment; suppress information that could be relevant to a sexual harassment investigation; or impair the ability of a victim to report a sexual harassment claim.
The legislation calls for opening up some past nondisclosure agreements, allowing a party to any such agreement to void it if signed under duress or as a minor.
Similar legislation has been introduced in other states, including New Jersey.
Lori Armstrong Halber, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in labor relations and employment law, said she finds several aspects of the proposed legislation troubling.
Among the problems, she said, is the bill's blanket prohibition on confidentiality. Such a strict ban would eliminate what she called an important tool for people who want to settle complaints without lengthy court proceedings. And often, she said, both sides want the information kept confidential.
She also noted that while there are clear-cut cases of harassment – and, conversely, clear-cut cases of false claims – "the vast majority of such cases fall into a gray area."
"The bill doesn't balance the right of the accused and the accuser in a just way," said Halber, a partner at the Philadelphia office of Fisher Phillips.