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Forging a path for survivors

A court ruling could give #MeToo victims more legal recourse

Ashley Judd Associated Press/Photo by Michel Euler (file)

Forging a path for survivors

Actress Ashley Judd won an important appeal last week in her lawsuit against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Her victory might make it easier for other women to find legal recourse against sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.

In April 2018, Judd sued Weinstein for defamation, sexual harassment, and interference with her career. She claimed that in late 1996 or early 1997 Weinstein invited her to a breakfast meeting in a hotel room and made inappropriate sexual advances. Judd rejected him and said Weinstein attempted to blacklist her in Hollywood in retaliation.

She filed her lawsuit after director Peter Jackson admitted that in 1998, Weinstein dissuaded him from casting Judd in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson said Weinstein claimed she was “a nightmare to work with.” After Jackson found out about Weinstein’s serial abuse, he began to believe Judd might have been the victim of “the Miramax smear campaign,” according to court records.

In September 2019, Weinstein’s lawyers argued that since he did not employ Judd or have a formal business relationship with her at the time of the alleged incident, California law prohibiting workplace sexual harassment did not apply. U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez concurred. He allowed Judd’s complaints concerning defamation and retaliation to go forward, but he dismissed the sexual harassment element of her suit.

After Gutierrez’s decision, the California legislature changed state law to explicitly cover relationships directors and producers have with actors. Judd sought to restore the sexual harassment portion of her suit, but in January, Gutierrez again dismissed her request, claiming the legislature had changed the law too late for it to affect her case.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It determined the law had applied to Judd’s case all along. “By virtue of his professional position and influence as a top producer in Hollywood, Weinstein was uniquely situated to exercise coercive power or leverage over Judd, who was a young actor at the beginning of her career,” U.S. Circuit Judge Mary H. Murguia wrote. Moreover, the court found that since Judd had previously acted in a Miramax film, she and Weinstein had a business relationship and his actions could have harmed her career prospects.

Weinstein and his attorneys claim he did not attempt to punish Judd but rather hired her in two later Miramax films, 2002’s Frida and 2009’s Crossing Over. He also said he pushed for her to get the lead female role in 1997’s Good Will Hunting, which went to Minnie Driver.

Earlier this year, a New York jury convicted Weinstein of rape and sexual assault in a separate case. He is serving a 23-year prison sentence near Buffalo, N.Y.

Ted Boutrous, Judd’s attorney, applauded the 9th Circuit’s decision, calling it “an important victory not only for Ms. Judd but for all victims of sexual harassment.” The decision adds another layer of accountability for sexual abusers who retaliate against people who evade their advances. Dozens of other women say Weinstein harassed and assaulted them over several decades.

“This case reminds us that sexual violence thrives on unchecked power and privilege,” Tarana Burke, the activist who coined the phrase “Me Too” to empower victims of sexual abuse, said in a statement. “The implications reverberate far beyond Hollywood and into the daily lives of all of us in the rest of the world.”

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Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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