California lawmakers voted Thursday to protect sexual assault survivors from retaliatory lawsuits, years after a former state lawmaker sued a woman over her allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
Proponents of the law hope it will counter efforts to silence victims.
The bill, passed overwhelmingly in the assembly with bipartisan support, would clarify that a victim’s comments about sexual assault or harassment are protected from a defamation lawsuit unless the allegation was knowingly made false or recklessly made. It would also help a victim who is successfully defending themselves in a defamation lawsuit to recover attorneys’ fees and damages.
Pamela Lopez, a lobbyist who accused a lawmaker of sexual assault in 2017, said a defamation lawsuit used as a retaliatory tactic goes beyond trying to disempower survivors.
“It’s also an attempt to disempower any person who wants to be part of a conversation with survivors about how we end up in a culture that perpetuates sexual assault and sexual harassment,” she said.
She claimed that then-congregation member Matt Dababneh, of San Bernadino, pushed her into a bathroom at a Las Vegas event in 2016 and masturbated in front of her. Dababneh denied the allegation but resigned from the assembly in 2018. He later sued Lopez for defamation over the allegation, although a lawyer hired by the legislature to investigate the claims believed them to be credible.
Lawyers representing Dababneh in his lawsuit said Thursday they will no longer represent him and will not speak on his behalf. Attempts to reach him through phone numbers listed in public records have been unsuccessful.
Lopez was among 150 women who signed a letter in 2017 condemning a culture of “pervasive” wrongdoing and sexism in California politics, in which men violently grope women, make inappropriate comments about their bodies, and undermine their expertise. The #MeToo movement led to a series of resignations from lawmakers in California and dozens of other states.
MP Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, who authored the bill, said it was vital for lawmakers to try to protect people from sexual misconduct in the first place.
“It’s just as important that we protect them from vengeance lawsuits,” said the Democrat, who represents Colusa County.
The bill would still have to pass the Senate before it reaches the desk of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In Illinois, a state legislature introduced a bill this year to bar people accused of sexual assault or molestation from defending themselves through litigation against accusers, but the legislature has not received a hearing. New York has also increased protections against retaliatory lawsuits against survivors of sexual assault in recent years, said Jessica Stender, policy director at Equal Rights Advocates.
Allegations of sexual misconduct are often already protected by state law, but there are “grey areas” in the law that leave victims vulnerable to retaliation, Beth Mora of the California Employment Lawyers Association said at a Judiciary Committee hearing in March.
She cited the lawsuit against Lopez as an example. Dababneh claimed Lopez defamed him in her comments on the allegation to the press.
“Although the court ultimately upheld Ms. Lopez’s speech as privileged, she has endured years of legal battles, and many survivors simply are unable to bear the cost and emotional toll,” Mora said.
Associated Press writer Trân Nguyễn contributed to this report.
Sophie Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna