Although each day seems to bring new allegations of executives sexually harassing employees, Baton Rouge- and New Orleans-area attorneys have yet to see an uptick in complaints or lawsuits.
But it's coming, they say.
"We just haven't seen it because it is so recent," said Scott Huffstetler, a partner in Kean Miller LLP's New Orleans office.
By "it," Huffstetler means the heightened interest in the issue of sexual harassment, which began with the presidential election and has gained momentum with each successive scandal. The disgraced stretch from Hollywood to New York, and even to New Orleans where in October celebrity restaurateur John Besh stepped down from the company he founded.
All of those events and the accompanying attention will lead to more sexual harassment complaints locally, Huffstetler said.
However, Jill Craft, a Baton Rouge attorney who specializes in discrimination cases, said she's more concerned that all the publicity will generate a backlash against victims, who have endured months or years of harassment.
Sexual harassment cases are very hard to win, Craft said. Courts have dismissed cases where defense attorneys argued that one or two comments were just "stray remarks." Even if a sexual proposition was made, the "first pass free" rule gives defendants an out.
Craft said she has a pretty good sense of what the law is, and it seems that many of the things being reported lately don't technically meet the legal definition of sexual harassment.
"So then what happens is you have people who think, 'Oh my gosh, somebody said something to me so therefore it's sexual harassment,'" Craft said. "And I'm so concerned about at some point society or folks saying, 'Hey, wait a minute. We're tired of this, you know. It's too much.'"
From October 2016 to Dec. 4, 2017, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated and closed 22 sexual harassment cases in Louisiana, 14 of which were made by women. There are 24 investigations pending, 22 of which were made by women.
Huffstetler has been practicing labor and employment law for 15 years. He has seen far more complaints involving racial issues, disabilities, the environment and safety than sexual harassment or discrimination.
The reason? Fear of retaliation, Huffstetler said. People believe that sexual harassment claims will just be swept under the rug, and the person who makes the complaint will suffer career-wise.
But the massive amounts of publicity in the past few months show businesses are taking the complaints seriously, he said. That could reduce the stigma of making a complaint, which could lead more people to do so.
Gregory Rouchell, labor and employment team leader at Adams and Reese's New Orleans office, said clients are less concerned about the potential for new sexual harassment claims than in making sure of the policies and procedures they have in place.
Clients in the New Orleans area and throughout the Gulf South want to make sure those procedures properly guard against any employees being subjected to harassment, he said. The firm has been asked to help with both written policies and seminars, both of which let workers know the types of unacceptable behavior and the protocol for reporting misconduct.
Huffstetler said he's advising his clients to make sure to review their policies and even to do some refreshers on those policies.
Equal Employment Opportunity policies should include a harassment component, laying out prohibited behavior, how to report a problem and how investigations will be conducted, he said.
"What we've seen recently is that a lot of these scandals are originating where the person was a very powerful person, a person with a lot of authority within an organization," Huffstetler said. "One of the things that I'm really hitting home with clients … is to make sure that their reporting mechanism isn't just limited to the employee's supervisor."
In other words, a victim of harassment should have multiple options for reporting a problem, whether that's to someone in human resources, the chief executive officer, a board member, or an anonymous complaint to a company hotline or web portal.