In the News

“Cuomo Harassment Scandal Underscores Limits of #MeToo Movement,” Bloomberg Law

August 9, 2021

  • Recent issues highlight barriers for victims
  • Systemic change needed to end harassment

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, slammed with state investigative findings that say he sexually harassed multiple women, became the latest powerful figure years after the launch of the #MeToo movement to give face to the persistent toxic culture that creates barriers for victims of hostile workplaces.

The allegations against Cuomo come as recent high-profile lawsuits point to entrenched harassment and discrimination, including in shareholder cases against L Brands Inc., the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, that settled in late July; a California agency’s complaint accusing Activision Blizzard Inc. of a “frat-boy” culture; and sexual assault litigation against an ex-Tinder executive that’s slated for oral argument this week at a federal appeals court.

Despite some advancements from #MeToo activism, legal and political obstacles remain for victims to come forward with harassment claims, and structural changes in the legal system and at companies still need to happen to eradicate these patterns, academics and attorneys said. This is particularly true for vulnerable workers in the restaurant, agriculture, and other industries dominated by low-income employees, they added.

Meanwhile, corporations are looking inward and investing in ways to adjust culture, as employees and shareholders increasingly demand better practices to eliminate harassment and discrimination.

. . .

Shareholder Muscle

While it may be hard for an individual victim to come forward, shareholder lawsuits targeting workplace harassment increasingly have led to changes at companies. L Brands agreed to spend $90 million on changes to corporate practices, including eliminating non-disclosure agreements. This followed a $310 million settlement with Alphabet Inc.’s board of directors and another $90 million settlement with Wynn Resorts Ltd. Another similar case is ongoing against Pinterest Inc.

“As shareholders got more involved, companies chose to make sure they were in compliance with Title VII,” said Julie Goldsmith Reiser, a partner with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, who has led many of the shareholder suits against companies. “From the date that #MeToo hit, it has turned instead into, ‘What is a toxic culture?’”

She said the #MeToo movement has taken longer to seep into the public sector, and many scandals there didn’t have an impact, including those involving former President Donald Trump.

“Many victims fear not being believed or the other side denying it, or saying that she shouldn’t have put herself in that position: Your dress was too short, you drank too much,” she said. “There are societal checks preventing people from comfortably coming forward.”

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