Home / General / Did Bill Clinton commit perjury or engage in sexual harassment in re Paula Jones?

Did Bill Clinton commit perjury or engage in sexual harassment in re Paula Jones?

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There was some discussion among the punditrati in the wake of Donald Trump’s 34 felony convictions about whether Bill Clinton could or should have been convicted of committing perjury in the context of the Paula Jones litigation, when he denied under oath that he had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.

This led me to read Judge Susan Webber Wright’s opinion in the case, dismissing the suit on summary judgment. This means the judge determined on the basis of the pretrial record that, even if the trier of fact concluded that all of Jones’s factual allegations were true, Jones still wouldn’t have a valid case. Wright reached this conclusion on the grounds that Jones’s description of her encounter and its aftermath did not include any facts that could be reasonably construed to constitute sexual harassment for the purposes of a Title VII federal civil rights suit, even assuming that Jones’s description was accepted as true for the purposes of the motion.

Here’s the description of the alleged encounter from the opinion:

Plaintiff states that upon arriving at the suite and announcing herself, the Governor shook her hand, invited her in, and closed the door. Pl.’s Statement of Mat. Facts, ¶¶ 7-8. She states that a few minutes of small talk ensued, which included the Governor asking her about her job and him mentioning that Dave Harrington, plaintiff’s ultimate superior within the AIDC and a Clinton appointee, was his “good friend.” Id. ¶ 8; Am. Compl. *664 ¶ 17. Plaintiff states that the Governor then “unexpectedly reached over to [her], took her hand, and pulled her toward him, so that their bodies were close to each other.” Pl.’s Statement of Mat. Facts, ¶ 9. She states she removed her hand from his and retreated several feet, but that the Governor approached her again and, while saying, “I love the way your hair flows down your back” and “I love your curves,” put his hand on her leg, started sliding it toward her pelvic area, and bent down to attempt to kiss her on the neck, all without her consent. Id. ¶¶ 9-10; Pl.’s Depo. at 237-38.[5] Plaintiff states that she exclaimed, “What are you doing?,” told the Governor that she was “not that kind of girl,” and “escaped” from the Governor’s reach “by walking away from him.” Pl.’s Statement of Mat. Facts, ¶ 11; Pl.’s Depo. at 237. She states she was extremely upset and confused and, not knowing what to do, attempted to distract the Governor by chatting about his wife. Pl.’s Statement of Mat. Facts, ¶ 11. Plaintiff states that she sat down at the end of the sofa nearest the door, but that the Governor approached the sofa where she had taken a seat and, as he sat down, “lowered his trousers and underwear, exposed his penis (which was erect) and told [her] to `kiss it.'” Id.[6] She states that she was “horrified” by this and that she “jumped up from the couch” and told the Governor that she had to go, saying something to the effect that she had to get back to the registration desk. Id. ¶ 12. Plaintiff states that the Governor, “while fondling his penis,” said, “Well, I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do,” and then pulled up his pants and said, “If you get in trouble for leaving work, have Dave call me immediately and I’ll take care of it.” Id. She states that as she left the room (the door of which was not locked), the Governor “detained” her momentarily, “looked sternly” at her, and said, “You are smart. Let’s keep this between ourselves.” Id.; Pl.’s Depo. at 94, 96-97.[7]

I offer no opinion here on whether or to what extent Jones’s description of the alleged event is accurate.

What interests me are two questions:

(1) Was Wright correct, again assuming Jones’s description was true for the purposes of the pre-trial motion, to dismiss her suit as not constituting an incident that could be considered sexual harassment by a reasonable jury? The reason Wright reached this conclusion is that, for the purposes of determining whether Jones had suffered compensable harm in the form of sexual harassment as defined by Title VII, she had to allege that she had either been subjected to quid pro quo harassment or a hostile work environment. Wright concluded that Jones hadn’t successfully alleged sufficient evidence of any quid pro quo harassment — her reading of the record is that Jones hadn’t been able to produce any evidence that a reasonable jury would accept that any quid pro quo harassment had happened in the wake of the alleged incident. FWIW I think this part of the opinion is clearly correct: Jones wasn’t able to show that any subsequent adverse employment consequences correlated with the alleged incident, let alone were actually caused by it.

As for a hostile work environment, the legal rules were and are that the behavior in question has to be severe and pervasive, in order to qualify as sexual harassment. Since this is the only time Clinton and Jones interacted, the question was whether this single incident, again accepting Jones’s description as true for the purpose of the motion, was a severe enough incident to constitute a hostile work environment. The basic rule is that the fewer the incidents the plaintiff is alleging, the more severe they need to be to constitute a successful hostile work environment claim. Webber decided that no reasonable jury could conclude that this incident by itself was severe enough to qualify.

Would this allegation fail to clear a summary judgment bar in 2024? Should it?

(2) Did Clinton commit perjury? There are two complications here: Perjury is a technical offense, that requires not merely lying under oath, but also lying under oath about a fact that is material to the relevant proceeding. The difficulties here are that:

(a) This suit was dismissed prior to trial as having no legal merit, and obviously Clinton’s lie about his affair with Lewinsky had nothing whatsoever to do with that dismissal. Can that kind of lie under oath count as perjury, given the materiality requirement?

(b) I can’t imagine that, had there been a trial, a judge would have let Clinton’s testimony regarding his affair with Lewinsky into evidence, as that affair, which both parties to it have always admitted was wholly consensual, had no apparent relevance to a sexual harassment claim, which at its core is always about lack of consent, and would also have been very prejudicial. Is a lie under oath that wouldn’t have been admitted into evidence if there had been a trial still material to the litigation?

So those are my questions. Please remember that this is a family blog.

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