Facing Up to Sexual Harassment in Hollywood : Law: Seminar finds women in entertainment more vulnerable because the industry virtually ‘sells sex.’ But cases are reportedly increasingly easy to win.
Women in the entertainment industry are more vulnerable to sexual harassment than other industries because Hollywood virtually “sells sex,” says a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer, who has watched complaints of sexual harassment rise sharply after the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings last fall focused attention on the issue.
Although Nathan Goldberg said calls about sexual harassment have leveled off since the hearings--when his phone was “ringing off the hook"--he said there are more complaints than before.
“People are less inclined to put up with (harassment), and they don’t have to,” Goldberg said. “They want to work and do their jobs.” He said most women who decide to see a lawyer feel they will be blackballed and will never be able to work in the industry again after making their claims.
Goldberg and two other entertainment lawyers, Jeffrey A. Berman and Antonia Ozeroff, spoke at a seminar on preventing and dealing with sexual harassment complaints. The Century City seminar drew about 60 producers, lawyers and employer representatives from the film, television and record industries as well as members of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
Employers should train their employees and managers to recognize and avoid sexual harassment and should promptly investigate any harassment charges, said Goldberg.
Since the allegations leveled by Anita Hill during the Thomas confirmation hearings in October, The Times has reported allegations of sexual misconduct by a major executive at at least three major record companies and a prominent law firm. Later a secretary at Geffen Records filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the company and its parent corporations for assault, battery and sexual harassment by one of its top executives. That executive has since resigned.
Women in film and television also have reported widespread sexual harassment, along with their difficulties in dealing with it. “It’s a tough issue for this business, which has desensitized a whole generation as far as what’s right and wrong,” said independent producer Leah Hanes, who attended the seminar. “There is a real confusion about what sexual harassment is. Most men know that at one time or another they could have been guilty of sexual harassment. There’s a real nervousness now among males.”
Berman said he has seen more sexual harassment cases than any other kind of case since the Thomas hearings. Berman and Ozeroff deal specifically with labor law, much of it within the entertainment industry.
“It is increasingly easier for victims to plead and prove claims and to recover substantial damages,” Ozeroff said.
Any unwelcome advances, either physical or verbal, that interfere with an individual’s work performance, or suggestions that employment is conditional upon sexual favors constitutes harassment. Harassment can also occur in the form of lewd posters or cartoons, Ozeroff said. Because the definition of harassment may be subjective in some cases, courts have established what’s known as the “reasonable woman” standard, or how a woman might reasonably be expected to respond.
“We love sexual harassment cases,” said Goldberg, a plaintiff’s attorney who handles many harassment claims. “They’re so easy.”
Goldberg said harassment cases, in comparison with other discrimination cases, are the easiest to prove and win. He also said that there is no cap on liability and that the damages awarded to plaintiffs can be “astounding.” Employers, he said, are “scared to death.” California juries have already handed down verdicts exceeding $1 million in sexual harassment cases.
He added that it is surprising how many entertainment executives display poor judgment in their sexual conduct. “Men in highly responsible, well-respected positions can be absolutely juvenile in the way they conduct themselves with regards to sex,” he said.
But Goldberg acknowledged the difficulty of regulating sexual conduct in the workplace, saying that in virtually every work environment people tend to “banter in a sexual way.”
In order to minimize the possibility of harassment charges being brought against a company, Berman suggested not only publishing rules prohibiting certain behavior, including jokes or remarks of a sexual nature, but suggested initiating a no-dating rule. The very mention of such a rule brought groans from some members of the audience.