After a model recorded Harvey Weinstein appearing to admit to sexual assault, prosecutors declined to press charges. When his employees filed complaints about “serious misconduct”, they were allegedly pushed out of the company and forced into silence with settlement agreements.
The criminal justice system and his human resources department allowed Weinstein to maintain his powerful Hollywood career for years, and despite dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and assault, he has continued to avoid serious legal repercussions. Until now.
A new civil rights case filed by New York’s top prosecutor has presented perhaps the biggest threat yet to Weinstein and his former film production company – and legal experts say it could have major financial consequences for the movie mogul. State attorney general Eric Schneiderman has accused Weinstein of “despicable” misconduct and alleged that his firm was “complicit” in a pattern of sexual harassment – violating gender discrimination and sexual abuse laws for years.
The lawsuit filed Sunday has deployed a unique legal strategy meant to force the embattled firm to provide substantial financial compensation to Weinstein’s alleged victims before an impending sale of the company. Some observers say it could work.
“It’s a creative intervention on behalf of victims,” said Anne Coughlin, a University of Virginia law professor. “It’s an interesting use of the law to say … we’re going to take a stand on behalf of the women you abused, harassed and victimized.”
The suit – which accused Weinstein of bullying employees with threats and insults including “I will kill your family” – could thwart a proposed sale of the Weinstein Company (TWC), forcing it to file for bankruptcy, experts said. The case could also secure financial gains for the producer’s alleged victims within TWC, and the women who say he harassed and assaulted them outside of the corporation could benefit from the momentum of the case.
Weinstein – whose decades of abuse allegations were first reported in the New York Times and New Yorker last fall, sparking the #MeToo movement – has broadly apologized for his conduct but repeatedly denied allegations of nonconsensual sex. His attorney Benjamin Brafman said Schneiderman’s investigation would demonstrate that “many of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are without merit”, adding: “While Mr Weinstein’s behavior was not without fault, there certainly was no criminality.”
The Weinstein Company board, which includes Bob Weinstein, Harvey’s brother, also claimed that “many of the allegations” in Schneiderman’s suit were “inaccurate”.
The case is significant given the obstacles women have faced when trying to go after Weinstein through criminal inquiries or sexual harassment complaints. Despite police investigations in New York, Los Angeles and London, it’s unclear if he will ultimately face criminal prosecution, and because many of the allegations stem from events years ago, convictions could be particularly difficult to win in court.
It was also challenging for employees to find any support when speaking up within the systems in place in TWC, the suit said. When one assistant complained of “misconduct” to HR, she discovered her message was forwarded directly to Weinstein, according to the attorney general. Despite numerous employee complaints, Weinstein was not “subject to a formal investigation, nor to restrictions on his behavior or adverse employment consequences”, Schneiderman’s office further alleged.
Having the state of New York going after Weinstein could be more effective than past efforts, experts said.
“The attorney general is focused on the misuses of corporate funds to further his sexual exploits as well as cover them up,” said Elizabeth Fegan, one of the attorneys representing women in a separate class-action lawsuit filed against Weinstein last year on behalf of actors, models and others who say they were victimized by the producer over the years. “It just reflects the broader societal shift in holding co-conspirators responsible. People can’t turn a blind eye.”
The suit could help ensure TWC assets go to victims as a sale moves forward, said Fegan, adding: “All of these cases have a common goal in proving a pattern of Harvey’s wrongdoing … Collectively, they will help bring him down.”
Weinstein and TWC may be inclined to settle and pay damages in the New York suit, added Mary Fan, a University of Washington law professor. “When you have so much negative publicity and so many witnesses coming forward … that is powerful incentive to settle and stop the bleeding.”
Schneiderman’s suit could encourage new accusers to come forward, said Eric Talley, a Columbia law professor and expert in corporate finance.
“If you were a potential victim, it seems pretty clear, you’ve gotten some more bargaining power,” he said, adding that in bankruptcy proceedings, his alleged victims could become claimants.
Talley said the legal battles could ultimately result in a scenario in which a new entity owned rights to Weinstein’s films – and chose to scrub his name from the credits.
Coughlin predicted the case could have implications beyond Weinstein: “It certainly does create another incentive for companies to listen very carefully when women come forward … and not just sweep these allegations aside and silence them.”