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Uber, Lyft end forced arbitration for sexual assault claims by passengers or employees

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Uber and Lyft no longer will require people alleging sexual assault or rape against the ride-hailing companies or their drivers to take their claims to forced arbitration.

Arbitration clauses in employment agreements - and in companies' terms of services - often prevent victims from going to court or discussing their cases publicly.

Less than three weeks ago, 14 women who alleged they were sexually assaulted or raped by their Uber drivers sent a letter to the company's board asking that their collective cases go to court, rather than to an arbitrator.

Within a new initiative to foster "transparency, integrity, and accountability," Uber says it no longer will require employees, passengers or drivers to enter arbitration to settle their claims, Tony West, the company's chief legal officer, said in a post on Uber's website Tuesday.

"We have learned it's important to give sexual assault and harassment survivors control of how they pursue their claims," he said. "So moving forward, survivors will be free to choose to resolve their individual claims in the venue they prefer: in a mediation where they can choose confidentiality; in arbitration, where they can choose to maintain their privacy while pursuing their case; or in open court."

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Hours after Uber made its announcement, Lyft released a statement saying it also would both remove the confidentiality requirement for sexual assault victims and end mandatory arbitration requirements to those individuals.

"The #metoo movement has brought to life important issues that must be addressed by society, and we're committed to doing our part," Lyft's statement said. "Today, 48 hours prior to an impending lawsuit against their company, Uber made the good decision to adjust their policies. We agree with the changes ... This (new) policy extends to passengers, drivers and Lyft employees."

While reports indicate that both ride-hailing services have had issues with drivers assaulting female passengers, Uber has for the past year found itself a locus for public concern about sexual harassment internally and for passengers.

In February 2017, former Uber software engineer Susan Fowler detailed sexual harassment and discrimination that she and others had experienced at the company. Subsequently, co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick left in June and was replaced in August by former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

Then in November 2017, two unnamed women filed a proposed class-action suit against Uber, charging that its poor vetting of drivers has led to thousands of female passengers enduring a range of sexual harassment, including rape.

That month, Uber was ordered by Colorado's public utilities commission to pay an $8.9 million fine after regulators found that dozens of drivers were operating there despite having criminal histories. (The fine was reduced by half after Uber pointed out the commission had already dropped half of the cases under review.)

To help it better address victims, Uber has met with more than 80 women's groups, including the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, West says.

Forced arbitration has become a major concern of the national Me Too movement because it silences women and protects companies with troubling workplace cultures, supporters say. A bill called the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment, proposed late last year, has been introduced in both houses of Congress.

Fowler, the former Uber software engineer, said on Twitter Tuesday she asked Uber CEO Khosrowshahi to stop forcing sexual harassment and assault victims into forced arbitration. "Today, @uber decided to do the right thing, and has changed their arbitration policy," she tweeted.

But ending forced arbitration is not enough for the victims of sexual harassment, assault or rape, says Jeanne Christensen, a partner at Wigdor LLP in New York City and one of the lawyers representing the women passengers.

"Uber has made a critical step in this direction, but preventing victims from proceeding together, on a class basis, shows that Uber is not fully committed to meaningful change," she said in a statement. "Victims are more likely to come forward knowing they can proceed as a group. This is the beginning of a longer process needed to meaningfully improve safety.'

Additional steps announced Tuesday by Uber include allowing victims to settle claims without a confidentiality provision that prevents them from speaking about the facts of their case, West says. Uber also is preparing a "safety transparency report" including data on sexual assaults and other incidents that happen on Uber.

Uber last month introduced new safety measures in its mobile app including a 911 emergency button and a feature letting riders inform friends about their planned Uber trips. The company also said it would strengthen the background check process for drivers.

West noted that Uber CEO Khosrowshahi at the time said predators "look for a dark corner," but that Uber now "has the lights on."

The company has improved its product and policies, West said, "but it requires so much more, and we're in it for the long haul."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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