In 2005 former Halliburton/KBR employee Jamie Leigh Jones was gang-raped by co-workers then held in a shipping container for at least 24 hours without food, water, or a bed so she couldn’t report the rape. Despite suffering from torn pectoral muscles and ruptured implants she was warned that if she left Iraq for medical treatment she’d be out of a job. When she did report the assault to the Department of Justice they refused to bring any criminal charges.
Jones then brought a civil suit against KBR arguing, among other things, that they negligently hired and supervised those who assaulted her. Jones and KBR spent the next fifteen months in mandatory arbitration- a private, secret forum with a mediator hired by KBR to hear Jones’s claims. If Jones lost at arbitration she would have no record of the proceedings, nor would she have any right of appeal.
As the arbitration dragged on Jones decided to fight the arbitration clause and won. On Tuesday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Jones’s rape and false imprisonment claims were not job-related and thus not covered by her employment contract. Such a conclusion seems simple and apparent to most outsiders, but in fact Halliburton had used this argument to keep Jones and her claims out of a public forum for years.
It took Jones three years alone to get to the point where she can finally sue the people who assaulted her and the company that allowed the assault to happen. According to the New York Times there are at least 38 other women like Jones with sexual assault and harassment claims against Halliburton/KBR. Those are just the reported incidents. According to the Times, comprehensive statistics on sexual assaults in Iraq are unavailable because no one in the government or contracting industry tracks them.
Jones’s case highlights the glaring disparity employees face when trying to sue their employers. Mandatory arbitration clauses usually cover any claim “related to” an employee’s job. Oftentimes this covers claims of harassment and discrimination.
While alternative dispute resolution forums can be helpful in providing a quicker means to resolving a dispute, they are fraught with problems. Oftentimes no formal record of the proceedings exist, employers pick the arbitrator, and, like Jones’s case there is usually no right of appeal from an arbitrator’s decision. More often than not the deck is stacked against the employee on the outset.
This is particularly troubling in Jones’s case since the evidence is mounting that the government provided nearly zero oversight of its military contractors. In fact, it took Jones testifying before Congress and attention from the New York Times to finally get the government to examine the legal gray area these private contractors inhabit. Here’s hoping Jones and the countless other women out there can finally find some justice after fighting both for their country and their dignity.
photo courtesy of DIVIDSHUB via Flickr