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Uber To End Policy Of Forced Arbitration For Sexual Assault Victims

Uber To End Policy Of Forced Arbitration For Sexual Assault Victims

Uber, under pressure to address an alarming number of alleged sexual assaults by its drivers, is amending a key policy.

The ride-hailing company announced that it will no longer require abuse victims to use its arbitration process rather than taking their cases to court. The change benefits only individual accusers, not those involved in class-action lawsuits.

Uber will also stop forcing customers to sign a confidentiality agreement that prevents them from telling their stories of sexual harassment and assault. Instead, victims may seek justice in open court and negotiate financial settlements with the company. The amended policies apply only to Uber's U.S. operations.

In April, 14 women who claim drivers abused them sent a letter to the company's board of directors. They demanded to be released from the arbitration requirement, which was one of the Uber app's service terms.

“Silencing our stories deprives customers and potential investors from the knowledge that our horrific experiences are part of a widespread problem at Uber,” the letter stated.

Nine of the women filed a class-action suit against the company in California. Uber's new policy will allow them to pursue their cases individually. They are also seeking damages for alleged fraud and false advertising.

The plaintiffs found an ally in Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer. She has accused the company of fostering a work environment in which sexism and harassment are common.

In September, a transportation official in London revoked Uber's license to provide services in the British city. The regulator cited safety concerns and suggested that the company had been reluctant to report sexual abuse by its drivers.

Uber has promised to draft a “safety transparency report” featuring statistics about assaults and “other incidents.” The company's top legal officer, Tony West, pledged in a blog post to do “the right thing” by focusing on “three elements: transparency, integrity, and accountability.”

Noting that sexual abuse is “a huge problem globally,” West wrote: “The last 18 months have exposed a silent epidemic of sexual assault and harassment that haunts every industry and every community. 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.”

Lawyer Jeanne Christensen, whose firm is representing the women who say they were abused, praised Uber's announcement. She predicted that ending mandatory arbitration for individual accusers will help “reduce future suffering by women passengers.”

However, according to Christensen, Uber's refusal to release class-action plaintiffs from the arbitration requirement proves that the company is “not fully committed to meaningful change.”

She explained: “Victims are more likely to come forward knowing they can proceed as a group. This is the beginning of a longer process needed to meaningfully improve safety.”

Ride-hailing competitor Lyft has also just announced they will be ending forced arbitration, likely in anticipation of similar scrutiny. The company would have been forced to repeal the policy anyway if Congress passes the End Arbitration For Sexual Harassment Act, which all of the country's state attorneys general have endorsed.

In an open letter to Congress the attorney generals wrote in February, they argued that mandatory arbitration should “not extend to sexual harassment claims.”

“Victims of such serious misconduct should not be constrained to pursue relief from decision makers who are not trained as judges, are not qualified to act as courts of law, and are not positioned to ensure that such victims are accorded both procedural and substantive due process,” the letter stated.

One of the effects of mandatory arbitration is that ride-hailing customers may not be aware of possible dangers. Settling complaints in a public forum like a courtroom “would help to put a stop to the culture of silence that protects perpetrators at the cost of their victims,” the attorneys general wrote.

One of those who signed the letter, Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi of Florida, added in a news release: “Decades of private arbitration proceedings regarding sexual harassment have had the unintended consequence of protecting serial violators and it must end.”

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California are among the sponsors of the proposed legislation.

Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson also spoke in support of the bill during a recent press conference at the nation's Capitol. The news network has itself been rocked by revelations of alleged sexual harassment. Fox founder Roger Ailes and top-rated commentator Bill O'Reilly were forced to resign after women accused them of abuse.

“Sexual harassment is not partisan because women from all walks of life and politics are targeted,” Carlson said. “Let's get on the right side of history with both parties, because when somebody decides to sexually harass you, they don't ask you if you are a Republican or a Democrat or an independent, like I am, first. They just do it.”