Many of us were not surprised by the prompt verdict Monday in the sexual-assault case in Denver involving Taylor Swift. A jury of six women and two men concluded within hours that a Denver radio host had groped Swift — grabbed her bottom beneath her skirt during a photo shoot, as his wife stood on the other side of Swift.
Although the case did not involve co-workers, the legal issues and factual disputes parallel what I often see, as a labor and employment lawyer, in workplace claims of sexual harassment and assault. It therefore provides good, timely lessons for businesses, managers, workers, and human resources professionals the next time they confront a similar situation on the job:
- Credibility is key. Whether or not you like Swift’s music, she has not been known to make false claims against others, cry “sexual harassment” at any offense, or favor litigation over private resolution. She sought only $1 in damages, demonstrating that this was not about money for her. In short, she had no motive to make up the assault claim. In fact, Swift did not even initiate the lawsuit — the radio host, David Mueller, did, claiming he had been defamed (bad move, Dave).
- Prompt discussion with others supports the claim. Swift told her photographer and her mother about the incident immediately after it happened. Although she did not make any formal criminal complaint against Mueller, timely communicating in any way (to a friend or relative, or writing in a journal) about harassment or assault can be compelling evidence of veracity.
- Failure to immediately react or file a claim is not damning. On the flip side, Mueller’s lawyer attempted to make much of the fact that Swift did not immediately slap Mueller, express outrage in her facial expression, or file a legal complaint. Swift testified that she was too stunned to react and did not want to create a scene in front of fans. The jury obviously found Swift’s explanation believable — perhaps sensing that she had the fortitude to “Shake It Off,” as it were, when bad things happened.
- Shifting explanations from Mueller. In contrast, Mueller took a variety of positions when confronted with the accusation: Initially denying it, but also issuing an apology. If you did nothing wrong, don’t apologize.
- Corroborating evidence. Swift also had the benefit of a photograph that appeared to show her moving away from Mueller, with his hand shown behind her, at the level of her bottom. Although the lawyers disputed the meaning of the photo, it supported her story. As we have seen before, such corroborating physical evidence — think of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress — can be decisive in these cases.
- Destruction of evidence. Mueller claimed to have spilled coffee on a computer on which he had stored a “secret” recording of a conversation with his employer about Swift’s allegations, destroying the recording. Swift’s attorneys characterized it as willful destruction of evidence, allowing the jury to infer he was covering up facts that hurt his case. Another bad move, Dave.
In retrospect, the evidence appears to have clearly favored Swift, but these cases never seem as black and white in the beginning. The key to getting to the truth is to have an immediate investigation by a qualified investigator with no vested interest or bias. If that is done, the matter usually can be resolved — and remedied, if needed — promptly, sparing everyone from the spectacle and emotional drain of a trial.
Michael Homans practices labor and employment law at Flaster Greenberg in Philadelphia. Michael.Homans@flastergreenberg.com