Almost nothing is quite as simple as it looks. Certainly not sexual harassment and accusations thereof—as insiders at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are well aware, notwithstanding last Saturday’s summary expulsion of Harvey Weinstein following dozens of claims that he had sexually abused actresses and others over the years.
After banishing Weinstein at an emergency session, the Academy’s board of governors boldly declared an end to Hollywood’s silence about industry sex abuse. The expulsion, it said, was intended “to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over.” A next step, the governors added, will be the promulgation of “ethical standards of conduct that all Academy members will be expected to exemplify.”
Still, the Academy, has reserved its own right to due process in challenging exactly such claims, if it considers them less than justified.
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For over two years, in fact, the group vigorously defended itself and two of its executives against legal claims that one of those executives, a woman, sexually harassed a subordinate, a man, and that the institution failed properly to rectify the situation after receiving notice. The charge of sexual harassment and other claimed violations led to a lawsuit that was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on March 25, 2015 – just days before Weinstein was alleged to have groped a woman, Ambra Battlilana Gutierrez, leading to a police complaint that is now among the many accusations that led to his expulsion.
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In the Academy case, which involved assertions of improper speech, invitations and physical contact, the group’s lawyers at the Quinn Emanuel firm did what those defending against workplace claims often do – they asked a judge to compel arbitration, taking the proceedings away from the courtroom, and into a more private setting.
In August of 2015, Judge Rita Miller ruled in favor of that arbitration request, which had been contested by the plaintiff’s lawyer, Scott D. Myer. Since then, only fleeting glimpses of the dispute have surfaced in the public record. In February of this year, for instance, a Quinn Emanuel court filing noted that an arbitrator had granted summary judgment to the Academy, eliminating seven out of nine causes of action. But one of the causes left standing was the first, which, at least in its original form, included the sexual harassment complaint.
According to the minimal public record, there was discussion about dates for a further arbitration. That might have been scheduled for August, September, or this month – whether it ever occurred is difficult to know because an Academy spokeswoman, a Quinn Emanuel attorney, and Myer did not respond to queries about the process. But Myer, in a Friday email, said, without elaboration: “The matter has been settled and dismissed.”
There is, of course, nothing improper in the Academy’s course of action. Institutions and individuals have a right to defend themselves against what they believe to be unjust accusations, or to settle claims against them. Disputes, whether in open court or closed arbitration, will continue to be conducted under rules of evidence, with allowance for witnesses, cross-examination, appeal, and, sometimes, a jury of peers. And anyone who expects the Academy – or its staff, governors, members and associated companies – to put their own rights aside in the hunt for predatory behavior will be disappointed.
The group’s president, John Bailey, said nearly as much on Tuesday, when he told members, in an emailed letter, “the Academy cannot, and will not, be an inquisitorial court.” Rather, Bailey stressed the only thing that might actually work – that is, a stronger sense of individual responsibility. “It is up to all of us Academy members to more clearly define for ourselves the parameters of proper conduct, of sexual equality, and respect for our fellow artists throughout our industry,” Bailey wrote.
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