January 19, 2018 • By Dennis Beaver
“With so many examples of sexual harassment coming to light, suddenly a long-suppressed memory surfaced, and frankly, Mr. Beaver, I want my former employer to pay for what they did,” Mary Ann stated during the kind of phone call that lawyers across America are now receiving almost daily.
So what was it? What happened? How long ago and what is this “suppressed” memory?
“15 years ago I was a receptionist at an architectural firm in Southern California staffed by architects from Italy, France, Spain, and Mexico. Everyone was friendly, and even though I understood it is the custom in these countries, I did not appreciate being greeted in the morning, with a hug and kiss on each cheek. I worked there six months, and, while I did not complain, it should have been clear from my body language this made me feel violated.
“I think because of that I have been unable to get close to most people, always keeping a distance. As the same architects are still working there, I want to call them, ask to be paid $500,000, and if they refuse, will tell their local newspaper that these guys are sexual abusers and sue them!
“My 80-year-old mother reads your column in the Eureka Times-Standard and told me to speak with you before doing anything.”
Hope our reader likes police cars and metal bracelets
We ran our reader’s story by Bakersfield Business Litigation attorney James Harvey. “If Mary Ann goes through with this scheme, I would not be at all surprised if she finds herself in the back seat of a police car and in handcuffs. What she is describing amounts to the crime of blackmail/extortion.”
Harvey explained that, while there are some technical differences between blackmail and extortion, “The bottom-line is that it is an attempt to obtain money or property from someone by threatening the use of force or fear. She doesn’t have to carry through on her threat of going to the media in an effort to embarrass these architects and harm their business. Making that phone call is all it takes to complete the crime.”
He was quick to point out a good-faith belief “That a former employer engaged in some type of sexual harassment or other improper behavior isn’t the issue. Even assuming it did happen the way she describes – and her body language made it clear this way of greeting her was unacceptable –stating, ‘Pay me or I’ll expose you to the press and you’ll regret it,’ is never legally appropriate.
“Even lawyers are forbidden from this type of behavior. Those who placed similar sounding phone calls or demand letters found themselves in trouble with state bar associations across the country.
How about the Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations is the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit. In general, time starts running from the first day of the first incident of sexual harassment, but in some states, it starts with the last incident. Space limitations prevent a more detailed description of the time limits – which can be as short as a few months – but Mary Ann’s case is clearly time-barred unless a judge can be persuaded to excuse the late filing due to her claim of recovered memory.
Remember the day-care-sex-abuse hysteria of the 1980’s?
With so much publicity of incidents of sexual harassment on the job, it should surprise no one that false claims will be made. We spoke with San Francisco employment attorney “JJ” who offered these cautionary remarks:
“If you recall the daycare-sex-abuse hysteria of the 1980s which swept the nation, we are seeing something like that for employers, physicians, chiropractors, dentists, optometrist, and lawyers by dishonest, often mentally disturbed former employees, patients, and clients.
“Suddenly, their memory of some event 30 years ago of improper behavior has awakened. Often we find the more money the other side has, the better the memory. The degree of fabrication is stunning and if you ever get a phone call from someone like Mary Ann, don’t say the wrong things,” he cautions.
And if you do get a call from someone like Mary Ann?
“This is one time where silence isn’t golden,” attorney Harvey observes, adding, “but you do not want to get into a shouting match.
“The best way to respond is to say, ‘This a serious accusation you have just made, and I would like your permission to record the remainder of our conversation. If you are not willing to have this conversation on the record, then I cannot talk about this without any way to establish what I did or did not say in response.’”
This might be a great time to know how to use your cell phone’s “record” feature.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.