Grab ‘em By The Verdict: Genie Harrison Takes on Sexual Harassment and Abuse
May 12, 2020 — by Alison Preece for Lawdragon
(Read the text below, or the complete story here at Lawdragon.com.)
Genie Harrison once dreamt of prosecuting war criminals. She found her calling taking on sexual harassment. Photo provided by the firm.
Genie Harrison knows how to get your attention. At a conference not long ago, she wore a T-shirt. Standard cut and cotton blend. But the slogan she created was something new:
“Grab ‘em by the Verdict.”
If you don’t get the reference, kindly crawl out from the rock you’ve been sleeping under and join the rest of us in the era of #MeToo, #TimesUp, and all other efforts to smash – ahem, reform – an outdated patriarchal system.
Harrison and the associates at her eponymous law firm have been the legal vanguard of this movement, representing plaintiffs against convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein; a class of women seeking equality in Silicon Valley; and countless other victims of sexual abuse and gender-based discrimination in the workplace, including firefighters, transit workers and janitors.
Her advocacy extends beyond the cases she litigates. Harrison developed two apps for victims of abuse and their lawyers: Damages Genie and Incident Genie. The first helps plaintiffs communicate about the emotional distress they are suffering and facilitates attorneys’ preparation of cases, all the way from discovery responses to trial preparation. The latter enables victims to track and record abuses and harassment, including geo-tagging and uploading photos — an idea she had as she grew incensed watching Lindsey Graham reject testimony by alleged victims in the Kavanaugh hearings because of a lack of evidence other than their testimony.
Harrison is also a columnist for Ms. Magazine, educating readers on topics like the Equal Rights Amendment, workplace discrimination, forced arbitration, and why judicial appointments matter so much to individual citizens.
Her entire life is geared towards protecting the rights of women and minorities, particularly employees, but she didn’t always plan on this line of work.
“When I went to law school, I wanted to work for The Hague and I wanted to prosecute war criminals who engaged in mass rape as a war crime and as a tactic in war,” says Harrison. Meanwhile, she had been having the horrendously common experience of professors, and, later, attorneys, making unwanted verbal and physical advances and violations. “I took a class on harassment and discrimination and I learned about sexual harassment. I said, ‘Oh, that’s what’s been happening to me, and you mean I could do something about that here?’”
And do something about it she has.
When she began practicing law 27 years ago, there were, of course, far fewer sexual harassment cases being brought. But she knew that would be her focus. After law school and a judicial clerkship, she joined a law firm in Southern California, doing a mix of business litigation and plaintiff work. After about six years she was firmly focused on the plaintiff side. She had a string of partnerships about which she says, “I was the problem in those relationships. I knew there was a better way to practice law, but was a failed advocate because I couldn’t convince anyone to do it my way.” Instead, in 2013, she started her own firm so she could devote herself entirely to the work that fueled her the most – and do so according to her own high standards.
“I think the community was hungry for a law firm like mine,” she says.
The women of Riot Games would, we think, agree. They recently brought Harrison in to take over the class-action suit they had brought against their employer, a video game company with headquarters in Los Angeles.
The story of Riot Games is a familiar narrative in Silicon Valley. Two college roommates had an idea — in this case, developing a single video game that they would continuously work to improve, building an online community and hosting esports tournaments. They founded the company in 2006, and the flagship game, League of Legends, was a hit: Just five years later the tech startup was majority-acquired by Chinese holding company Tencent, then fully acquired in 2015.
But along with the breakneck growth and commercial success came problems, frustratingly predictable at this point: The female employees at Riot Games were suffering from inequality and a sexist “bro” culture, all too rampant in the tech industry.
The women brought a class-action lawsuit against the company in 2018, with claims alleging unequal pay, sexual harassment, and whistleblower retaliation. The class included over a thousand current and former employees of the game company. By the following year they had reached a potential settlement, but anyone paying attention tilted their heads at the sum: a paltry $10 million for the entire class.
Harrison believed they likely deserved more. And she wasn’t the only one.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing had been investigating Riot Games for almost a year and a half at that point, and they, along with the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement, were opposed to the settlement, deeming it insufficient. (In one assessment, they suggested something closer to $400 million might be more appropriate.) This was an unusual move for these agencies, who said that the case had lacked proper discovery, no real experts seemed to be called in, and, perhaps most damning, they suggested there may have been collusion between Riot Games and plaintiffs’ counsel (Beverly Hills-based Rosen Saba), to the detriment of the class.
The Riot Games women realized they needed a women’s rights attorney who would be able to come in and grab them by the you-know-what.
Enter: Genie Harrison.
Her first move was to withdraw the proposed motion for preliminary approval of the settlement and start a robust process, including interviewing many putative class members and hiring statisticians to analyze pay data, which is ongoing.
The issue of equal pay may seem straight-forward – like, yes, let’s go ahead and pay people fair wages regardless of their reproductive organs, shall we? – but real-life applications are often more complex.
Harrison points to the analysis done by software behemoth Salesforce, whose CEO, Marc Benioff, felt sure that there was no pay inequity in his company. So certain, in fact, that he told his head of HR to go ahead and do the analysis, committing to correct any disparities they found. Well, they were rampant, and to date, the company has paid out over $10 million to close the gap. What’s more, Salesforce voluntarily performs these equal pay studies and adjusts salaries as a result every year.
“When you take that proactive, responsible approach that is based on individual autonomous personal responsibility, and you hold it up in comparison to what Riot Games has done, you see the problem,” says Harrison.
“When we ignore what is ubiquitous and known across society, that women are paid 30 percent to 40 percent less in some industries than men, and we do nothing about it, we’re choosing to allow it to continue.”
Disrupting the status quo is an area in which Harrison feels quite comfortable.
Her most high-profile work to date has been representing Sandeep Rehal, a former personal assistant of Harvey Weinstein, in a civil case against the once all-powerful movie mogul and his former company. The claims, filed in state court in New York, include physical and verbal sexual harassment, with the complaint citing a “pervasive and severe sexually hostile work environment.”
She was not directly involved in the criminal case against Weinstein, but (like the rest of the world), was paying close attention. She cheered his recent conviction, not only because she has dedicated her life to the rights of women, but because the defense was using a common argument that experts like Harrison have long been working to debunk: that the victims somehow “wanted” this abuse from their employer (or potential employer), in particular pointing to what was often a continuing relationship after the fact.
“The harasser or perpetrator benefits from the disorganizing consequences of the trauma that he or she imposes,” explained Harrison, “The way we, as a society, may expect sexual abuse victims to respond is not actually consistent with the data,” says Harrison. “We don’t go through life – most of us thankfully – learning how to respond to traumatic events like rape and sexual harassment in ways that make sense to society at large.”
The defense showed conversations and other interactions the women had with Weinstein following the abuse, claiming it was irrational behavior, or, more to the point, proof of a lack of wrongdoing on his part.
“The entire prosecution, including Dr. Barbara Ziv’s expert testimony, was framed around teaching the jury that there are sex abuse and rape myths,” she says. “They showed that the simple fact that these women conducted themselves in certain ways afterwards, including continuing to communicate with one of the most powerful men in their business, literally the man with the golden ticket, makes a lot more sense than the defense would have us believe, and is in fact consistent with the behavior of many rape and abuse victims.”
Does his conviction represent a sea change in the way sexual abuse and harassment cases are going to be handled?
“I certainly hope so,” says Harrison. “I’m optimistic. Now, do I think that the last sexual harassment or rape case has walked through my door and that everything’s going to be all better now? No. I do think, in part, some of these things are human nature. So we have to impose consequences for breaking the rules. People need to lose their jobs when they break these rules. As a matter of public policy across this nation, we have decided that it is important for people to support themselves by going to work, having a job and earning an income, and being able to do so free from harassment or discrimination based on immutable characteristics, and retaliation for engaging in protected activity.”
In the Weinstein civil cases, Harrison and others have reached a tentative joint settlement of $25 million, to be dispersed among dozens of Weinstein’s accusers.
Some of the plaintiffs and their counsel are not satisfied with the sum, which is to be paid by the insurance companies since The Weinstein Company has declared bankruptcy. (Weinstein himself is also widely expected to be filing for bankruptcy sometime soon.)
The insurance policies are the only real assets the former production company has at this point, and the insurers have sued to declare the policies invalid due to the company’s failure to disclose the many sexual harassment claims against Weinstein over the years. The insurance policies are what’s called “burning limits” policies, which means that for every dollar spent on the defense of any of these cases, that’s a dollar less that’s available to the victims from the insurance funds.
“I understand the frustration and I wish it could be a billion dollars,” says Harrison. “But I believe this is the best outcome in an incredibly complex, incredibly difficult circumstance.”
“Sometimes what happens is you get portions of the justice pie in different settings,” she says. “There is a big portion of the justice pie that happened criminally as a result of the incredibly brave women who came forward, on whose behalf charges were brought, and who then testified. There was a piece of the justice pie that was achieved through investigative journalism, by Ronan Farrow and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, in outing Harvey Weinstein, and through social media where women are telling the truth and supporting one another, and then also through the civil cases. Those are each part of the justice pie.”
Harrison’s cases are frequently in this realm of impact litigation, finding relief for victims but also effecting changes in society. She understands that justice for her clients often goes beyond the monetary.
Her work on behalf of firefighters, for example, helped reform a culture of racial and gender inequity at the Los Angeles Fire Department through a series of civil cases and other efforts. Her results include a $6.8 million judgment on behalf of an African American lesbian firefighter who suffered discrimination, harassment and retaliation when she tried to blow the whistle.
In addition to the brass tacks of litigation, Harrison helped organize a grassroots movement to shed light on the prejudice and abuse being suffered by female and minority firefighters in the city agency. She worked with community groups, the media, and larger organizations such as NAACP and the National Organization of Women, and government agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “We, as a result of a group effort, made change,” she says.
Harrison has a natural ability to rally others to a cause, and seems to have an endless supply of heart and verve to fight for what’s right. But she is, in fact, a mortal. Working regularly with victims of trauma, in some of the lowest points of their lives, she prioritizes self-care in her life and with the associates and staff at her office, so that they can keep up the fight.
“We have an incredibly tight knit group,” she says of her team, which consists of five attorneys in a downtown Los Angeles office. “There’s no artifice or pretense. We laugh, we cry, we’re dressed up, we’re in sweats. We’re just people doing everything we can to fight for justice, support each other and be real.”
“There’s a lot of love and support that happens inside my office,” says Harrison. “We move components around when somebody’s burnt out or when they need a day or whatever. Our goal is to be able to keep doing this, emotionally, physically, with the love and support of our families, and time off for doctors and therapy. We try to keep all of those components moving in the same direction, supporting ourselves and one another.”
Harrison quit drinking years ago, has a daily post-office workout routine, and puts a premium on laughter and a good night’s sleep. She also keeps a handle on her workload, despite being increasingly recognized as a fierce and unstoppable advocate for women, whom everyone wants on their side.
“I have a low volume, high quality practice,” she says. “I’m extremely detail oriented and I want to do my best job on every case. That takes time. It does for all the lawyers and paralegals in my firm, so we keep a very low case load. Lawyers have no more than five to seven cases in litigation at a time so we can do our best job and not feel like we’re going to burn out.”
It’s a smart strategy, even if the world might be better off with ten (or ten thousand) Genie Harrisons to cover all the ground that still needs tending.
“[My clients] only want justice,” she says. “They want what’s right and they want to be heard.”
And so: Harrison will continue to grab ‘em by the verdict until such time as all grabbing is unnecessary because we’ve collectively learned our lesson to keep our damn hands to ourselves.
One can dream…
About the author: Alison Preece (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Editor at Lawdragon, with a focus on Lawyer Limelights and interview features. She has nine years experience in strategic communications and content marketing for top tier law firms, along with nonprofits and arts organizations. She is based in Brooklyn.