Lawyer accused of groping two employees can't force suits into arbitration, appeals court rules
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A Michigan personal injury lawyer accused of groping a receptionist and a paralegal can’t compel arbitration of their harassment lawsuits, a Michigan appeals court has ruled.
The mandatory arbitration agreement signed by the employees doesn’t apply to sexual assault allegations because it covered claims “related to employment,” the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in a March 14 decision.
“Despite the fact that the sexual assaults may not have happened but for plaintiffs’ employment,” the majority opinion said, “we conclude that claims of sexual assault cannot be related to employment.”
Central to its conclusion, the court said, is the strong public policy that no one should be forced to arbitrate sexual assault claims.
Allowing arbitration “would effectively perpetuate a culture that silences victims of sexual assault and allows abusers to quietly settle these claims behind an arbitrator’s closed door,” the court said. “Such a result has no place in Michigan law.”
The receptionist, Samantha Lichon, alleges that Morse made sexual comments and groped her breasts and groin area without her permission during work hours. The paralegal, Jordan Smits, alleges that Morse grabbed her breasts in front of other lawyers at the firm’s Christmas party.
The majority cautioned that its holding was based on “a very specific set of facts” involving an accused owner of a law firm.
A dissenting judge said the majority overlooked other provisions of the arbitration agreement, including a provision requiring arbitration of any claim against another employee for discriminatory conduct. “Based on this language, I would hold that plaintiffs’ claims arguably fall within the scope of the arbitration agreement,” the dissent said.
Morse’s lawyer, Deborah Gordon, told the Detroit News that she expects that the decision will be appealed. In the event of an appellate loss, Gordon said her client is prepared to go back to court to defend himself. “I believe in my client and defense,” she said.
Gordon added that the two plaintiffs jumped on the bandwagon and decided to sue after another accuser filed a suit claiming that Morse grabbed her breast during a selfie photograph at a restaurant. A Michigan judge tossed the selfie suit after finding that Morse’s accuser lied in a deposition about a possible financial motive for her suit.
Lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, a competitor of Morse’s, represents all three women, according to the Detroit News.