By SOPHIE AUSTIN
Associated Press/Report for America
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers voted Thursday to protect sexual assault survivors from retaliatory lawsuits, years after a former state lawmaker sued a woman over her sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Supporters of the legislation hope it will counteract efforts to silence victims.
The bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly with bipartisan support, would make it clear that a victim’s comments about sexual assault or harassment are protected against defamation lawsuits if the allegation is not knowingly false or made recklessly. It would also help a victim who successfully defends themselves in a defamation lawsuit to recover attorney’s fees and damages.
Pamela Lopez, a lobbyist who accused a lawmaker of sexual assault in 2017, said a defamation lawsuit used as a retaliation tactic goes beyond trying to disempower survivors.
“It is also an attempt to take away the power of every person who wants to be part of a conversation with survivors about how we wind up in a culture that perpetuates sexual assault and sexual harassment,” she said.
She alleged that then-Assemblymember Matt Dababneh of San Bernadino pushed her into a bathroom and masturbated in front of her at a Las Vegas event in 2016. Dababneh denied the allegation but resigned in 2018 from the Assembly. He later sued Lopez for defamation over the allegation even though a lawyer hired by the Legislature to investigate the claims found them to be credible.
Lawyers who represented Dababneh in his lawsuit said Thursday they no longer represent him and will not speak on his behalf. Attempts to reach him through phone numbers listed in public records were unsuccessful.
Lopez was among 150 women who signed a letter in 2017 condemning a culture of “pervasive” misconduct and sexism in California politics where men forcefully groped women, made inappropriate comments about their bodies and undermined their expertise. The #MeToo movement spurred a slew of resignations by state lawmakers in California and in dozens of other states.
Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, who authored the bill, said it’s essential for lawmakers to try to protect people from sexual misconduct in the first place.
“It is just as imperative that we protect them from revenge lawsuits,” the Democrat representing Colusa County said.
The bill would still have to pass in the Senate before reaching Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
In Illinois, a state lawmaker introduced a bill this year in an attempt to keep people accused of sexual assault or harassment from retaliating against accusers through litigation, but the legislation hasn’t received a hearing. New York also strengthened protections in recent years against lawsuits used to retaliate against sexual assault survivors, said Jessica Stender, policy director at the Equal Rights Advocates.
Sexual misconduct allegations are often already protected under state law, but there are “gray areas” in the laws that leave victims susceptible to retaliation, said Beth Mora with the California Employment Lawyers Association, at a Judiciary Committee hearing in March.
She used the lawsuit against Lopez as an example. Dababneh alleged Lopez defamed him in comments she made about the accusation to the press.
“Although the court ultimately upheld Ms. Lopez’s speech as privileged, she had to endure years of litigation, and many survivors are simply unable to take on that 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 report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna