WASHINGTON — A former Trump campaign staffer filed a class action Wednesday seeking to invalidate all of the nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements that the Trump campaign required all staffers to sign.
The claims brought by former campaign staffer Jessica Denson represent the broadest attack to date on the Trump campaign’s practice of having staffers, volunteers, and contractors sign agreements barring them from ever publicly criticizing Trump, his company, or his family, and from disclosing private or confidential information.
The Trump campaign has gone after several former staffers who publicly aired their grievances against Trump, his administration, or his campaign, including Omarosa Manigault Newman and Cliff Sims, who recently wrote a book about his time in the White House called Team of Vipers. Denson was ordered to pay nearly $50,000 to the campaign after filing a workplace discrimination and harassment lawsuit in 2017.
Denson has been tangling with the Trump campaign on multiple fronts in court and in arbitration. Her class action case was filed before the American Arbitration Association Wednesday. Individual arbitration proceedings normally take place in secret, but class action cases are public.
Denson’s lawyers estimate thousands of campaign staffers, volunteers, and contractors signed NDAs and could be covered by the case. If the nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements that they signed were thrown out, these former staffers would be free to talk about their time on the campaign — and to criticize the campaign or the president without fear of facing financial penalties.
Denson’s lawyers argue the campaign’s standard NDA is unlawful because it penalizes employees for exercising their right to sue for things like workplace discrimination and harassment, unpaid wages, and violations of workplace safety laws, and for claiming violations of campaign finance laws, corruption, or fraud.
“The Form NDAs effectively strip employees, contractors, and volunteers of their ability to pursue any of their rights to redress workplace misconduct,” Denson’s lawyers wrote in the arbitration filing. “Anything and everything they could do will of necessity contain some information that a Trump Person could find disparaging or a disclosure of confidential information.”
Her lawyers are also arguing that the language of the NDA is too vague — it gives Trump himself discretion to decide what is “private” and “confidential” — doesn’t have any time or geographic limits, “lacks a legitimate purpose,” and is void because it allows a government actor — in this case, the president — to restrain a person’s free speech rights under the First Amendment.
“Indeed, any person who has ever signed the Form NDA, whether or not he or she has entered into government service, subjects himself or herself to grievous financial penalty for the mere act of engaging in constitutionally protected criticism of the sitting President of the United States,” Denson’s lawyers wrote.
The NDA that Denson signed, which her lawyers contend was the same document used for other campaign staffers, volunteers, and contractors, applies not only when staffers worked for the campaign, but also “at all times thereafter.”
Denson, who has claimed she was a victim of discrimination and harassment while she worked for the campaign, declined an interview request. Her attorney David Bowles told BuzzFeed News that although their case only involves the version of the NDA that Trump campaign workers signed, a ruling for Denson could affect other campaign workers or Trump administration staffers who may have signed similar agreements.
“[Denson] was deeply disappointed by the way she was treated by the campaign. She’s been deeply disappointed by the way the Trump campaign has used the NDA against her and she fears that similar things are being done to other campaign workers. She wants to put it right,” Bowles said.
Denson’s case comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed earlier this month by Sims, who is challenging an arbitration demand filed by the campaign accusing him of violating an NDA that he signed.
The Trump campaign also previously sued former campaign consultant Sam Nunberg in the summer of 2016, claiming a breach of his nondisclosure agreement; Nunberg and the campaign later reached a confidential settlement. The campaign announced last year that it had brought an arbitration case against Manigault Newman, a former White House official and campaign aide, for allegedly breaching her NDA, but there hasn’t been any public information about the status of that case since. A spokesperson for Manigault Newman did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.
A Trump campaign spokesperson and lawyers for the campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Denson was hired by the campaign in August 2016 as a national phone bank administrator, and she was later promoted to director of Hispanic engagement; Federal Election Commission records show that Denson was on the campaign’s payroll through the fall of 2016.
In November 2017, Denson sued the campaign in New York County Supreme Court. She claimed she was discriminated against and cyberbullied by campaign officials — she did not raise any claims against Trump himself — and was subject to a hostile work environment. She asked for $25 million in damages.
In December 2017, the Trump campaign took Denson to arbitration, claiming she had breached her nondisclosure agreement by bringing the lawsuit in state court. In March 2018, Denson sued the Trump campaign in federal district court in Manhattan, challenging the NDA as invalid.
In state court, the judge found that Denson’s claims of workplace discrimination and harassment fell outside of her NDA, and allowed Denson to go forward with the case. In federal court, the judge dismissed her lawsuit, finding that any attempt to invalidate the NDA had to go to arbitration.
Denson did not participate in the arbitration case filed by the campaign. An arbitrator concluded that Denson did breach her agreement, and she was ordered to pay just under $50,000 to the campaign (in October, the arbitrator entered a partial award in the campaign’s favor, ordering Denson to pay $24,808 in damages, and then in December he ordered Denson to also pay $24,699 in legal fees and costs).
In the state court case, Denson is now asking the judge to throw out the arbitration order. In the federal court case, the campaign is asking the judge to uphold the arbitrator’s award and Denson is challenging it. Neither judge has ruled so far.