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Silenced No More Act: New California law addresses workplace harassment and discrimination

A new California law places additional limits on nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) and nondisparagement agreements that restrict employees’ ability to speak publicly about unlawful behavior in the workplace. Signed into law last October as SB 331, the Silenced No More Act went into effect on January 1, 2022, and expands on existing protections.

Background

As workplace harassment and discrimination have received more attention in recent years, the widespread use of contractual agreements to prevent current and former workers from speaking out has also come under increased scrutiny. The agreements are often criticized for allowing companies to avoid negative attention and thus continue fostering unhealthy and unsafe work environments.

Two California laws passed in 2018 sought to combat such secrecy clauses:

SB 820

The STAND Act (SB 820) outlawed the use of NDAs in settlement agreements that prohibit parties from speaking about the factual basis of claims related to workplace sexual harassment and discrimination based on sex.

Legislators noted that many of Harvey Weinstein’s victims were bound by such NDAs, allowing his behavior to continue in secret.

SB 1300

Another 2018 law (SB 1300) made it unlawful for employers to force employees to sign a nondisparagement agreement that prohibited them from speaking publicly about discrimination and harassment in their workplace.

The law was aimed at current employees, who could no longer be made to sign this kind of agreement in order to receive a raise or bonus, or as a condition of employment or continued employment.

The Silenced No More Act

The Silenced No More Act keeps the same basic framework of SB 820 and SB 1300 but provides additional protections for current and former employees.

SB 820 only limited NDAs in settlement agreements where the claims were related to sex discrimination and sexual harassment. If an employee faced discrimination based on race, for example, companies were still allowed to enforce an NDA as part of a settlement.

The new law expands this protection to all forms of harassment and discrimination prohibited by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The protected classes defined in that law are race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, familial status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or veteran or military status.

While SB 1300 placed restrictions on the use of nondisparagement agreements for current employees, the Silenced No More Act extends this rule to severance agreements as well.

There is an exception, however, when the severance agreement is “negotiated,” meaning it was part of a claim brought in an outside setting such as a court and the claimant had the opportunity to be represented by an attorney.

The Silenced No More Act is not retroactive; it applies to agreements entered into on or after January 1, 2022.

What Does the New Law Mean for You?

Whether you are an employee or a business owner, the Silenced No More Act will have a significant effect on how workplace disputes are resolved. To determine how it could affect your case or business, contact us today for a consultation.

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