The Weinstein Company faces potential legal jeopardy in the wake of a New York Times expose detailing sexual harassment claims against co-chairman Harvey Weinstein.
Though the cases referenced in the story have been settled, it is now possible that new accusers could come forward.
“His company is extremely vulnerable,” says Debbie Katz, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents plaintiffs in harassment suits. “The board has been on notice that there is significant misconduct, settlement moneys have been paid, and there has been no corrective action.”
The Times story alleged a pattern of behavior, in which Weinstein would meet with actresses or young female employees at hotel rooms. According to the story, he would either expose himself or encourage the women to give him nude massages. A former employee, Lauren O’Connor, made a detailed complaint about Weinstein’s behavior, which reached the board level. However, according to the Times, the complaint was quickly settled and the board opted not to investigate.
Weinstein announced Thursday that he would take a leave of absence, prompting some to conclude that more allegations are yet to come.
“I don’t think the full story is out,” said attorney Mark Geragos. “If he’s stepping aside, they’ve obviously made a calculation this is a very serious matter.”
It is possible that other women who experienced misconduct and who will now be emboldened to come forward.
“It’s a pattern of behavior,” says Courtney Abrams, a Los Angeles attorney at Helmer Friedman LLP. “Usually what happens when a sexual harassment lawsuit is filed is that other women feel there’s safety in numbers.”
The key question, as far as legal liability is concerned, is whether the alleged activity falls within the statute of limitations. In California, where much of the misconduct in the Times story is alleged to have occurred, plaintiffs must file an administrative charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing within a year. Once that is filed, they have another year to file a lawsuit.
“I’m sure we’ll be hearing from more people about what their experiences were with him,” says plaintiff’s attorney Lisa Maki. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Though Weinstein disputes many of the allegations, and his attorney has even threatened to sue the Times, he has been careful not to disparage any of the accusers. Doing so could expose him to defamation claims.
Weinstein also apologized on Thursday and said he had retained attorney Lisa Bloom, who typically represents plaintiffs in high-profile harassment cases, to help educate him about harassment and help him “grow into a better man.”
Katz said she found that response “insulting,” and not a serious reaction to allegations of decades of systemic misconduct.
“He knows what the law is,” she said. “Someone who has his power and abuses his power does it because he can, not because he doesn’t know it’s wrong.”
Katz said the Weinstein Company’s response so far has been wholly inadequate.
“They need to bring in a credible outside entity to investigate,” she said. “Employees need to be given really serious assurances that there will be no retaliation. They’re looking to see which way this thing is going to go — is Weinstein going to continue or be pushed out?”