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Uber and Lyft are getting rid of tactics that keep sexual assault victims silent

The ride-hailing companies won’t force sexual harassment and assault victims into arbitration or keep them from speaking out about their experiences.

An Uber car waits for a client in Manhattan.
An Uber car waits for a client in Manhattan a day after it was announced that Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick will take a leave of absence as chief executive on June 14, 2017, in New York City. The move came after former Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm released 13 pages of recommendations compiled as part of an investigation of sexual harassment at the ride-hailing car service.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Uber is dropping mandatory arbitration requirements and nondisclosure agreements for sexual assault and harassment victims, the ride-hailing company said on Tuesday. The announcement is the latest chapter in Uber’s efforts to restore its brand after a series of scandals and missteps. Hours after Uber’s announcement, its competitor Lyft said it would waive its arbitration and confidentiality agreements as well.

Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, outlined the changes in a blog post on Tuesday morning and put them in the context of the broader conversation around sexual misconduct and the #MeToo movement. “The last 18 months have exposed a silent epidemic of sexual assault and harassment that haunts every industry and every community,” he wrote. “Uber is not immune to this deeply rooted problem, and we believe that it is up to us to be a big part of the solution.”

As #MeToo gets more national attention, advocates have pointed to arbitration clauses as one way victims feel silenced. More and more companies are reevaluating their inclusion in employee contracts — Microsoft got rid of its version late last year.

But Uber is perhaps extra surprising in light of the company’s history with allegations of sexism and mishandling of sexual misconduct and abuse. A now-infamous memo published by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler in February 2017 detailed a pervasive culture of sexism throughout the company, and dozens of Uber drivers have been accused of sexual misconduct and assault.

The changes Uber is making are threefold. First, it will no longer require mandatory arbitration for claims of sexual assault or harassment by Uber riders, drivers, and employees. Arbitration requires parties to resolve disputes before an arbiter instead of through the court system. It keeps victims from moving forward with public lawsuits and keeps cases behind closed doors.

Second, Uber is scrapping confidentiality provisions that keep victims from speaking out about their experiences. And third, it will publish a “safety transparency report” that will include data on sexual assaults and other incidents that occur within Uber.

Supporters say ending forced arbitration will bring sexual misconduct into the light

Citing court records in a California class-action lawsuit, the Guardian reported in March that Uber has argued that female passengers who speak up about sexual assault and violence in an Uber have to settle their cases individually through arbitration. Several women from the US have joined the class-action case and aim to represent all the women who say they were assaulted in Uber cars. Uber filed a motion saying that riders agreed to arbitrate disputes in private when they sign up in the first place.

A recent CNN investigation found that more than 100 Uber drivers in the US have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the past four years.

“Our clients deserve a trial,” Jeanne Christensen, one of the lawyers involved in the class-action suit, told the Guardian. “The goal is to force Uber to acknowledge that this is happening and to do something about it.”

As Recode points out, Uber’s decision to get rid of forced arbitration comes days before Uber’s deadline to respond to the class-action lawsuit. A Lyft spokesperson told the publication that the timing is conspicuous.

“Today, 48 hours prior to an impending lawsuit against their company, Uber made the good decision to adjust their policies,” the spokesperson said. “We agree with the changes and have removed the confidentiality requirement for sexual assault victims, as well as ended mandatory arbitration for those individuals so that they can choose which venue is best for them. This policy extends to passengers, drivers and Lyft employees.”

Fowler, who penned the viral Uber memo, has also called for an end to forced arbitration. Her post painted a picture of a toxic culture within Uber that is hostile to women and prompted the company to enlist former US Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct a review.

“Forced arbitration leads to long-term operating risk,” Fowler wrote in an April 2018 op-ed for the New York Times. “Forcing legal disputes about discrimination, harassment, and retaliation to go through secret arbitration proceedings hides the behavior and allows it to become culturally entrenched.”

Forced arbitration has become increasingly commonplace in a variety of settings, including in financial services and in the workplace. The Economic Policy Institute estimates some 60 million American workers are subject to mandatory arbitration clauses in their jobs.

Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, who sued Fox News chair and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment in 2016, has focused her post-Fox efforts on ending forced arbitration. She is advocating for a federal law that would bar mandatory arbitration in harassment for gender discrimination cases and is an outspoken supporter of the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act, bipartisan legislation sponsored by Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) and co-sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Reps. Walter Jones (R-NC) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY).

Microsoft in December announced that it would end forced arbitration for sexual harassment cases and endorsed the bipartisan legislation that would bar it across the country. West, Uber’s chief legal counsel, told the Wall Street Journal the company hasn’t taken a position on the proposed law.

Putting an end to confidentiality agreements gives victims the ability to speak out

Nondisclosure agreements, like forced arbitration, are often used to silence victims of sexual harassment and assault. Disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s company required employees to sign contracts promising not to make statements that would hurt the reputations of the company or its executives, and when female employees sued Weinstein for harassment, claims were settled confidentially and victims were barred from speaking out.

President Donald Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen now infamously paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 ahead of the 2016 election to keep her from discussing her alleged 2006 affair with Trump. (To be sure, confidentiality agreements can benefit victims who might prefer to keep their identities under wraps or keep companies or their abusers from retaliating against them publicly.)

Uber said on Tuesday that it will continue to employ confidentiality requirements for the specifics of financial settlements but it won’t stop victims from divulging the details of what happened to them. “Whether to find closure, seek treatment, or become advocates for themselves, survivors will be in control of whether to share their stories,” West wrote.

Uber also says it will be more transparent about sexual misconduct claims within its ranks and continue efforts to boost safety. This summer, it plans to launch new safety features, including more accessible driver screening information and a direct way to contact 911 during a ride.