More Self-Inflicted Wounds? Fox Hit With Race Discrimination Lawsuits

It was humming along, the major cable news network in America, raking in billions in profits.

Now Fox News  has lost (forced out) its visionary chief executive officer, Roger Ailes, and its top star,  Bill OReilly, both accused of sexual harassing female subordinates for decades.  Fox  paid  Ailes and OReilly tens of millions in severance to leave, not to mention millions in damages to their alleged victims.

And now Fox is reeling from a second wave of discrimination complaints – this time involving race discrimination. A Fox News spokesperson has denied the claims and said the network will “vigorously defend these cases.”

Two black women who worked in the Fox News payroll department, Tichaona Brown and Tabrese Wright, filed a race discrimination lawsuit   in New York state court on March 28 alleging  that Fox Controller Judith Slater, who was fired by Fox on Feb. 28, subjected “dark-skinned employees” to racial animus.

Eleven past and present Fox workers joined the lawsuit Tuesday, complaining that they were  humiliated, paid less than white coworkers and passed over for promotions.

Kelly Wright, a two-time Emmy award winner and former long-time co-host of Fox and Friends. Wright complains that he was  “effectively sidelined” because of his race and “asked to perform the role of a ‘Jim Crow’ – the racist caricature of a Black entertainer.”

Meanwhile, Adasa Blanco, who worked in Fox News’ accounts payable department from 2005 to 2013,  filed a separate race discrimination lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York. She claims Fox knew about Slater “for more than eight years and then feigned … to the media and public that it terminated her immediately upon learning that she engaged in discriminatory conduct.”

What if?

One is left to wonder what would have happened if 21st Century Fox, the owner of Fox News, had made it clear to Ailes a couple of decades ago that the company was actually serious about its anti-harassment policy? And what if 21st Century Fox had insisted that everyone, including Ailes, was required to follow that policy.

Harassment complaints often are difficult  for a company. They sometimes boil down to “he said, she said.”  When that happens, the Human Resources Department has tools in its arsenal to ferret out the truth.

At some point, for example, Fox could have commissioned a “360 degree” survey of all workers in Judith Slater’s department to ascertain whether these workers felt that they were being subjected to discriminatory animus. Corrective measures could have been put in place, including Slater’s ouster.

The saga of Fox News should serve as a wake-up call to every American employer.

If you don’t have an anti-harassment policy, you should adopt one. If you have one, you should enforce it,  from the top down.

Failure to adopt and enforce an anti-harassment policy can lead to unnecessary (and sometimes even fatal) wounds that are all the more painful because they are self-inflicted.

 

Band-Aid Not Enough in Sexual Harassment Case

NOTE:  On 1/23/13, a federal judge  denied a request from a lawyer for Paul’s Big M Grocer to reduce the $467,269 punitive damages portion of the jury verdict against the store, former manager Allen Manwaring and the store’s owner, Karen Connors.

A federal appellate court panel has issued an important ruling that it is not enough for employers to pay off victims of sexual harassment. They also must fix the underlying problem that led to the harassment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled on Oct. 19, 2012 that a lower court abused its discretion in denying any injunctive relief in a sexual harassment case brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Injunctive relief is essentially a court order that requires the employer to stop the practices that led to the discriminatory conditions.

“At minimum, the district court was obliged to craft injunctive relief sufficient to prevent further violations of Title VII by the individual who directly perpetrated the egregious sexual harassment at issue in this case,” ruled a three-judge panel of the appeal courts.

The case, EEOC v. Karenkim, Inc., 11-3309 (2nd Cir. 2012), involved  Paul’s Big M Grocer, which is owned by Karenkim, Inc.,  in Oswego, New York. Karenkim  was found liable for sexual harassment and fostering a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The jury awarded the ten members of the class of defendants a total of $10,080 in compensatory damages and $1,250,000 in punitive damages. The  award was subsequently reduced pursuant to a statutory cap to a total of $467,269.

The store is owned and managed by Karen Connors, who hired the store manager, Allen Manwaring, in 2001.  Connors and Manwaring almost immediately began a romantic relationship and now are engaged and have a son together. Women who worked at the store, some as young as 16, complained to no avail that they were being sexually harassed by Manwaring. Some were  terminated after filing a complaint.

At one point, Manwaring was actually arrested and pled guilty to second degree harassment after he approached an employee, a  high school student, who was talking on the phone, stuck his tongue in her mouth as she was talking and then walked away “with a smirk on his face.”    In deposition testimony, Connors said she did not believe Manwaring had done anything wrong and accepted his explanation that he had “falleninto” the girl.

The store had no anti-harassment policy until 2007 and no formal complaint procedure until after the trial.

 The EEOC asked the court for an injunction because the store had “not adopted adequate measures to ensure that harassment of the kind at issue in this action does not recur.”  Specifically, the EEOC noted that Connors and Manwaring remained in a romantic relationship, that Manwaring still worked at the store as a produce contractor, and that following the verdict Manwaring continued to deny he had engaged in sexual harassment.

The district court denied the EEOC’s request for injunctive relief, ruling it was unnecessary and overly burdensome in that it would require the defendant to “alter drastically its employment practices …”

The appeals court said that ordinarily terminating a lone sexual harasser might be sufficient to eliminate the danger that the employer will engage in subsequent violations of Title VII. In this case, however, the Appeals Court noted that Manwaring,  the store manager, engaged in harassing conduct that was “unchecked for years” because he was involved in a romantic relationship with the owner – a relationship that continues.

The appeals court panel said the EEOC’s requested ten-year proposed injunction was overly broad but that the lower court at least should have prohibited the store  from directly employing Manwaring in the future and from entering the store premises. In addition to those provisions the EEOC had asked the court to order KarenKim to hire an independent monitor for the store.

The appeals court concluded that under Title VII, “[i]f the court finds that the respondent has intentionally engaged in or is intentionally engaging in an unlawful employment practice charged in the complaint, the court may enjoin the respondent from engaging in such unlawful employment practice, and order such affirmative action as may be appropriate. … Once a violation of Title VII has been established, the district court has broad, albeit not unlimited, power to fashion the relief it believes appropriate.”