Statement On Justice for Jamie Leigh Jones

Yesterday, I was pleased to learn that a brave young woman, Ms. Jamie Leigh Jones, will finally have her day in court.  Ms. Jones testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year about how the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act has hampered American employees from having their civil rights protected.  Ms. Jones was a compelling witness; her case deserves the attention of every Senator.

When she was just 20-years-old and was working overseas for the military contractor, KBR, Ms. Jones was sexually assaulted by her coworkers.  She filed suit in Federal court alleging sexual harassment, hostile work environment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and several state law tort claims including assault and battery.  Both KBR and its former parent company, Halliburton, argued that her claims were subject to forced arbitration under a clause that Ms. Jones was required to sign as a condition of her employment.  The district court agreed with the company in part.  It dismissed her Federal civil rights claims because it found that they were subject to forced arbitration under her contract.  But the court held that Ms. Jones could proceed to trial on some of her tort claims, albeit only after her civil rights claims had been decided in arbitration.  Halliburton and KBR appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that under her employment contract and the Federal Arbitration Act, all of Ms. Jones’s claims were subject to forced arbitration, including her assault and battery claims arising out of her alleged rape.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, and once again the companies appealed.

In the interim, Congress enacted an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 (Pub. L. 111-118).  That amendment was sponsored by Senator Franken and supported by Senators from both parties.  It prohibited the U.S. Government from entering into contracts with and paying Federal tax dollars to corporations who force their employees to arbitrate their civil rights or tort claims related to sexual assault and harassment or take any action to enforce such forced arbitration clauses.  I am pleased that the companies cited this law, which I was happy to support, as a reason for dropping their appeal.

As we examined in our October hearing, however, millions of hard working Americans like Ms. Jones are being denied their civil and constitutional rights and being forced into arbitration merely by accepting a job offer that contains an arbitration clause as a condition of employment.  There is no rule of law in arbitration.  There are no juries or independent judges in the arbitration industry.  There is no transparency or accountability.  And unfortunately, there is often no justice.

After more than five years of hard won challenges, Ms. Jones will finally be able to seek justice in a courtroom.  But this small victory should not have been such a struggle.  I will continue to work to ensure that Americans have a meaningful choice about whether or not to enter a pre-dispute arbitration agreement—no American should be forced to forfeit their access to the courts in order to get a job or a product or a service.  Arbitration clauses like the one in Ms. Jones’s contract strip Americans of the civil rights protections many of us in Congress have fought for so long to enshrine in our law. 

Legislation such as Senator Feingold’s Arbitration Fairness Act (S.931), which would make mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses in employment, consumer, franchise, or civil rights disputes unenforceable, would correct these practices and restore fairness to the marketplace for jobs and other goods and services.  Jamie Leigh Jones’s struggle also highlights the importance of the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2010 (S.2979), which I recently introduced.  My legislation would fix outdated criminal laws by establishing that all U.S. government employees and contractors who commit crimes while working abroad can be charged and tried in the United States under American law.  We must continue to protect victims like Ms. Jones and others who have their civil rights violated.  I look forward to the day when justice is the norm, rather than the exception, in all cases like this.

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