From Hashtag to Legal Defense Fund: Hollywood Women Give Teeth to #MeToo

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Analysis Violence

From Hashtag to Legal Defense Fund: Hollywood Women Give Teeth to #MeToo

Bryce Covert

"Earning a living should not come at the cost of anyone’s safety, dignity, or morale,” said Shonda Rhimes, the TV producer and writer who is involved in a new #MeToo-inspired initiative, in a statement.

Since the Harvey Weinstein exposé and #MeToo movement in which various high-profile men have been publicly accused of sexual harassment and then deposed, the question has lingered: Will this moment lead to anything more lasting or systemic? Can it reach victims who aren’t abused by the rich and famous?

A group of women in Hollywood have come up with at least a partial answer: the launch of a new initiative they’re calling Time’s Up. It was on full display at the Golden Globes award ceremony on Sunday night and a focus of media coverage after attendees wore black in solidarity, actresses spoke out against harassment and cried “time’s up!” from the stage, and Oprah Winfrey gave a rousing speech that highlighted the new initiative.

But it’s more than a slogan or PR blitz. Leaderless and containing many different vectors of activity—including lobbying for legislation, urging changes in corporate practices, and pushing for equal gender representation in leadership—Time’s Up’s most impactful piece just may be the creation of a new legal defense fund offering resources for people who come forward about experiencing sexual harassment at work. It holds particular potential for the women who have mostly been left out of MeToo thus far, primarily those earning low wages or working in blue-collar workplaces.

The fund will be housed within and administered by the National Women’s Law Center, where it will dovetail with the center’s newly created Legal Network for Gender Equity. The network is the country’s first-ever national legal project focused on sex discrimination, consisting of a corps of private attorneys ready to take on such cases. The network fields calls from people who have experienced sex discrimination and connect them to attorneys who might be able to help.

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The attorneys and public relations professionals who get involved with the Legal Defense Fund will now offer their services to these clients either pro bono or at a reduced rate to defray the costs that can arise with taking legal action. The fund had already raised $13 million before its launch, which will go to assisting the victims of sexual abuse, assault, or harassment with lawsuits and getting professional PR help to combat any smear campaigns against them.

In its press release on New Year’s Day announcing its launch, the new organization said, “The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund will enable individuals to come forward without fear of legal, career or financial retaliation and work toward a culture free from sexual harassment.”

“Earning a living should not come at the cost of anyone’s safety, dignity, or morale,” said Shonda Rhimes, the TV producer and writer who is involved in Time’s Up, in a statement.

But low-wage women can often find it difficult to seek justice and dignity. Even if they win their cases, the payout for back pay or damages is often lowered based on their lower earnings. “That means it’s harder to find an attorney who is willing to take the case on,” given that the attorney’s cut may be small, explained Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “That leaves women who want some sort of legal remedy with few or no options.”

It’s particularly a problem for women at smaller employers or those who aren’t seeking monetary damages but instead policy changes. “If there is a potential claim for damages and … an employer who can pay, it’s easier to find a private lawyer than if you’re focused on non-monetary issues or have an employer that doesn’t have the resources to pay,” noted Anne Clark, a partner at law firm Vladeck, Raskin & Clark P.C. This can be a hurdle in rural areas especially, where there are fewer private attorneys to begin with.

But the fund’s resources could coax more lawyers to take these cases on by offering the promise of compensation. “The fund will not be able to subsidize people at the $800 sorts of rates that some major firms charge,” Martin said. “But it will provide enough support so attorneys aren’t doing this for free.”

“Our goal is to identify fund-eligible cases at a really early stage so it helps people find counsel who don’t already have counsel,” she added.

It will also help defray the other costs that plaintiffs and their attorneys can struggle to cover. Initial filing fees to begin a lawsuit can run several hundred dollars. Then other expenses quickly add up: Depositions require a court reporter, who can cost $1,500 a day, according to Clark, as well as a videographer with their own fees. Many cases need expert witnesses, especially to prove things like emotional damage, and those easily run in the thousands of dollars. That’s all before a trial even begins; during the trial, costs can arise for creating presentations and other needs.

While some private attorneys can afford to cover these themselves, it can be difficult, and some are simply stretched too thin. “There have been cases where I’ve been willing to take a matter for a lower-wage worker on a contingency basis and not get paid if it was not successful, but was not necessarily able to financially front all the costs of litigation,” said attorney Kevin Mintzer. “As much as the private bar folks like me try to stretch, it’s not always possible to do that. It’s a real problem.”

That can make victims give up on taking action altogether. Some of Mintzer’s clients have walked away when faced with such prospects. “To help with the costs could make a big difference,” he added.

The fund and the related campaign can also help by spreading awareness. “There is certainly some difficulty for blue-collar women or just in general women in less-privileged positions to be aware of their legal rights and to actually take the steps,” Mintzer said. “Funds like this have the ability to make people more aware.”

The legal defense fund is being spearheaded by Tina Tchen, who previously served as First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, and Roberta Kaplan, an attorney and former litigator who argued on behalf of the late LGBTQ advocate Edith Windsor in front of the Supreme Court. Funders so far include many Hollywood luminaries, including Rhimes, Meryl Streep, J.J. Abrams, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and one of Steven Spielberg’s foundations.

Time’s Up doesn’t just represent a concrete way to help women who have fewer resources. It is also focused on fostering solidarity between those with resources and power and those without. In a letter published on January 1 as a full-page ad in the New York Times and La Opinion, more than 300 women in the entertainment industry acknowledged an earlier, similar letter issued by members of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a group representing agricultural workers who have fought against their own sexual harassment and offered solidarity with actresses who have also experienced it. “We see you, we thank you, and we acknowledge the heavy weight of our common experience of being preyed upon, harassed, and exploited by those who abuse their power and threaten our physical and economic security,” the entertainment industry’s letter reads. “We also recognize our privilege and the fact that we have access to enormous platforms to amplify our voices.”

The letter outlines a desire to support all victims of sexual abuse as they seek justice, particularly those in low-wage industries, and to have more media attention paid to the experiences happening outside of Hollywood. The first step, the letter notes, is seeding the legal fund “to help survivors of sexual assault and harassment across all industries challenge those responsible for the harm against them and give voice to their experiences.”

“To every woman employed in agriculture who has had to fend off unwanted sexual advances from her boss, every housekeeper who has tried to escape an assaultive guest, every janitor trapped nightly in a building with a predatory supervisor, every waitress grabbed by a customer and expected to take it with a smile, every garment and factory worker forced to trade sexual acts for more shifts, every domestic worker or home health aide forcibly touched by a client, every immigrant woman silenced by the threat of her undocumented status being reported in retaliation for speaking up and to women in every industry who are subjected to indignities and offensive behavior that they are expected to tolerate in order to make a living: We stand with you. We support you,” it reads. The letter ends: “In Solidarity.”

The legal defense fund can play a big role in turning that solidarity into concrete assistance. “Harassment plays upon power differentials .… Harassers recognize that if a woman is one paycheck away from homelessness she probably does not feel like she has the ability to report harassment,” Martin said. “Those are hard problems to solve, but one thing that can really help is to have an attorney on your side fighting for you. That’s one of the things that’s so hard to find if you are a fast food worker, if you’re a hotel worker, if you’re earning very little money.”

“Having the support of a network like this can be empowering for women in these positions in feeling that they’re not alone,” Mintzer added. With more money in the game, these vulnerable women could soon find more people fighting by their sides.