Attorney for Cuomo Accuser says James’ Investigation Should Be “Blueprint” for Harassment Inquiries
Attorney Debra S. Katz, who represents Charlotte Bennett, the former staffer to Gov. Andrew Cuomo who accused him of sexual harassment, said the investigation into the governor should “serve as a blueprint for what we do going forward.”
She cited Attorney General Letitia James’ use of two independent, veteran investigators and her commitment to transparency as being exemplary. Katz of Katz, Marshall and Bank, made the comments during a panel on the status of the #MeToo movement directly following keynote remarks by James. The panel took place as part of the Presidential Summit, which is the premier event of the New York State Bar Association’s Annual Meeting.
Katz, who also represented Christine Blasey Ford who accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, described how an entire system of defenders comes to the rescue when sexual harassment allegations are made against major CEO’s and celebrities like Roger Ailes, Les Moonves, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer. Katz referred to her own experience representing Bennett, noting that Cuomo’s aides did not report harassment allegations because they decided the claims were not valid.
The panel focused on the legislative successes and still needed reforms to protect employees from harassment in the workplace. Much of the conversation focused on the problem of power dichotomies between employees and employers.
At the start of the panel, moderator Susan L. Harper of the Bates Group played a video from Time Magazine highlighting the women of the #MeToo movement. The testimony of actors like Rose McGowan and journalist Megyn Kelly were interspersed with that of service industry workers and teachers.
Taa R. Grays of MetLife, NYSBA secretary, and Carrie Goldberg of C.A. Goldberg both made it clear that the #MeToo must move forward by focusing on the stories of the less powerful because they are still the most often abused and least likely to receive justice.
Goldberg said that laws that try to mandate arbitration between employers and employees over sexual harassment allegations are harmful and disempower victims. Further, she said legislation designed to ban non-disclosure agreements was misguided and hurt victims.
“Silence can be a contagion and can in certain conditions enable serial predators, but we can’t single out victims of sexual harm to not have the same contract clauses. It is up to us as attorneys to explain to our non-disparagement and non-disclosure clauses, what it means if a harasser become governor, or a Supreme Court justice. Are they still going to be OK being bound by a provision? In some cases, absolutely yes but our job is to let our clients say actually ‘no it will take another few million dollars to take away my right to expose that predator.’”
Katz agreed, adding that she had heard from many journalists who were writing pieces suggesting NDAs prevent the outing of serial harassers. But Katz said 70% of harassment victims who responded to one survey said they did not’ report because “of fear of retaliation. There are systemic reasons harassment exists and persists in the workplace and it doesn’t have to do with NDAs at all.”
Goldberg said that most of her clients face huge obstacles to having their harassment claims addressed that begin with the fact that many of them are single, Black mothers who live below the poverty line. She detailed how many of the victims are also school-aged girls who feel betrayed repeatedly by the system that is charged with protecting them.
She described how one client who was sexually assaulted at school was suspended by the school administration for having sexual contact on school grounds and detailed how online platforms enable harassment and refuse to take responsibility despite knowing that their products are “defective.”
Goldberg said that her goal is to “Slay goliath” and that lawyers should use their power to go after the biggest predators and abusers “including the tech industry.”
Goldberg and Katz agreed that one of the most useful tools in holding corporations accountable is the specter that earning the reputation for protecting harassers will hurt their image and cost them money. In some cases, that may prove to be a useful tool for protecting impoverished workers from harassment. But in cases where big names are not involved, it can be harder to deliver justice.
Grays, who co-chairs NYSBA’s Task Force on Racism, Social Equity, and the Law; explained the concept of intersectionality, saying that the system only knows how to treat Black women who are abused as either women or Black. And therefore, the system fails to address the larger underlying causes and systemic abuse and corruption. “We have a saying in the Black community,” said Grays, “When the white community has a cold, the Black community has the flu.”
In other words, racism allows for greater abuses and less protections for people of color.
Harper backed up this point citing an article from The Harvard Business Review the reported that women of color suffer the most. “Studies show that they are more likely than white women to be harased at work,” said Harper. “Because women of color bear the brunt of harassment, as a group they file more complaints, and suffer the most when grievance procedure backfire leading to more retaliation.”
Asked by Harper how this cycle could be addressed, Grays said that it would help if women who are not famous had powerful allies to publicize their stories. “It’s up to those in power to get these stories to the forefront as this impacts all women; not just Jane Fonda, Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan. This happens to dishwashers, housekeepers, people who are on the lower economic spectrum who happen to be women of color.”