Bill penalizes those filing sexual harassment lawsuits — if they lose

Tennessee’s attorney general is pushing a revision in the rules for sexual harassment lawsuits at the same time he is investigating allegations of sexual harassment against Rep. Jeremy Durham, reports The Tennessean.

This law change would specifically apply to people suing a state employee over sexual harassment claims, noted Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart. The Nashville Democrat said the legislation would make it harder than ever for people to seek legal protection in the event they are harassed by a state employee.

“At a time when the Attorney General is tasked with a wide-ranging sexual harassment investigation, it is entirely inappropriate that the Attorney General is also seeking to pass a law that will, for the first time, threaten interns, lobbyists and others working in and around the Legislature with potentially devastating sanctions for pursuing sexual harassment claims,” Stewart said in a statement.

The bill (HB1679) is needed to protect state employees, Attorney General Herbert Slatery argued in a statement.

“The proposed legislation says if (i) the employee is sued individually for acts or omissions in the normal course of performing his or her duties, and (ii) the state employee successfully defends the lawsuit, attorneys’ fees and court costs would be paid by the losing party,” Slatery said in the emailed statement.

“Under those circumstances public servants like school teachers, correctional officers, state troopers, and transportation workers should not have to risk their assets and credit during years of litigation.”

…House Civil Justice Chairman William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, (the sponsor)…. he’s worked with Slatery’s office for months on the bill, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the Attorney General’s current investigation.

…Heather Moore Collins, a Brentwood-based attorney and president of the Tennessee Employment Lawyers Association… (said the bill) would completely kill the process…It’s absurd, it’s just absolutely absurd.”

Note: Here’s a further comment from Slatery, emailed after this post first appeared:

Statement from Attorney General Herbert Slatery:
“Our office supports HB 1679/SB 2377. State employees and officials are frequently sued. In most cases they are sued in their official capacity. This means the state will be ultimately responsible for any wrong that occurred, just like any other employer. State employees may also be sued in their individual capacity in the same lawsuit, meaning their personal assets and credit are at risk. The proposed legislation says if (i) the employee is sued individually for acts or omissions in the normal course of performing his or her duties, and (ii) the state employee successfully defends the lawsuit, attorneys’ fees and court costs would be paid by the losing party. Under those circumstances public servants like school teachers, correctional officers, state troopers, and transportation workers should not have to risk their assets and credit during years of litigation. If the plaintiff decides to file an action like that, he or she should also have something at risk. After all, that plaintiff still retains the suit against the state, who will have to pay any award.

The state must pay costs and attorneys’ fees to prevailing parties in some cases like state tax cases, as well as certain federal cases. It is important to point out that this bill in no way deters legitimate lawsuits against governmental employees not acting in their official capacity.” –Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III

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