Former media mogul Harvey Weinstein has been in the news for more than two years, and for all the wrong reasons. Facing dozens of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct lawsuits and criminal charges in two different states, Weinstein is experiencing the consequences of decades of sexual assault and coercion targeting some of Hollywood’s famous actresses and many other company employees. Now, there are signs that the civil cases may be coming to an end. A tentative civil settlement will resolve dozens of sexual misconduct lawsuits and clear the way for future claimants to get relief even if Weinstein goes to jail or files for bankruptcy.
More than 2 years ago, on October 5, 2017, the New York Times revealed a report showing that Harvey Weinstein had a secret. He had been paying off actresses and employees who raised sexual harassment claims against him for decades. That initial report included the stories of big-name actresses Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie, as well as company staffers and employees. Over the next several months, more than two dozen more women added their voices to the #MeToo movement, raising allegations against Weinstein and his company.
The women explained that Weinstein would invite them to business meetings at his hotel, but when they arrived he would be nude or in a robe. He would then pressure them to give him massages or watch them shower. Sometimes he would touch the women sexually as well. Because of Weinstein’s powerful position in the film industry, many of these young actresses felt they could not say no. Refusing Weinstein’s advances was a career-killer.
As a result of these news stories, Weinstein lost his position as the head of his company, was expelled from the Oscars organization, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and other professional organizations, and came under criminal scrutiny in England, California, and New York.
In the midst of media fervor, several of the women who raised sexual harassment claims took to the courts. Acting swiftly to qualify under restrictive statutes of limitations periods, women filed civil lawsuits in Canada, the UK, New York, and elsewhere. The lawsuits named Weinstein and his company as defendants and raised Title VII sexual harassment claims along with allegations of rape, sexual assault, and retaliation. New York state prosecutors also filed a lawsuit against the Weinstein Company for violations of state and federal anti-harassment laws.
Then in May 2018, the case turned criminal. New York prosecutors indicted Weinstein for rape and sexual abuse against two women. A third victim was added later. In January 2020, California prosecutors added more charges to the list with a separate criminal prosecution.
While all this was happening, in March 2018, the Weinstein Company filed for bankruptcy. This complicated the sexual misconduct lawsuits filed against Weinstein for his actions as an employer because any settlement of their claims against the employer would have to be approved as part of the company’s total resolution of debts and liabilities.
The first word of such a resolution came over a year later, in May 2019. At the time, it appeared Weinstein’s accusers could have received approximately $44 million. However, it now appears that amount was the total bankruptcy resolution. A more recent report, published December 11, 2019, says that the sexual misconduct lawsuits may be resolved for approximately $25 million out of a total $47 million resolution submitted to the federal bankruptcy court.
The tentative agreement says that 18 plaintiffs who had already come forward would split $6.2 million. No one plaintiff would receive more than $500,000 for her claims. Another $18.5 million would be set aside for the class action part of the lawsuit. This would allow future claimants to come forward and be paid by a court-appointed monitor.
But even this smaller settlement has a long way to go before it becomes final. First, it must be approved by the bankruptcy court. Then, a federal judge overseeing the class action lawsuit must review the terms. Two women with pending lawsuits, Alexandra Canosa and Wedil David, have already said they intend to challenge the agreement. This could further delay the resolution as the courts hear their objections and weigh the fairness of the solution.
$500,000 may not sound like a lot for attempted rape charges and claims that retaliation intefered with an actress’s Hollywood career. Many of the lawsuits made claims for far more. However, the company’s bankruptcy and the potential for Harvey Weinstein to file for bankruptcy himself may be motivating the plaintiffs to settle for less. Plaintiff and actress Katherine Kendall told the New York Times, “I don’t love it, but I don’t know how to go after him. . . . I don’t know what I can really do.” Another of the plaintiffs’ attorneys said that if the women hold out for more, they could find themselves left with empty judgments that cannot be collected upon.
Still, the settlement of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct lawsuits isn’t the end of his comeuppance. The criminal charges against him are still pending. Even if the charges against him in New York fail and a jury finds him not guilty, California prosecutors have indicated they intend to press forward on their own case. Yet these charges only address a small number of the women who have come forward with complaints of sexual harassment and abuse. For many others, the tentative settlement, no matter how small, may end up being the end of their journey.
At Eisenberg and Baum, LLP, we have sexual harassment and sexual abuse attorneys on staff to help women and men facing misconduct at work. We represent the victims of rape, sexual assault, and workplace harassment against their employers and abusers, and help them get the compensation they need to put the harm behind them. If you have been the victim of sexual assault, contact us today to schedule a free consultation.