Civil rights lawsuit: New York Times and its officers charged

In news reported cautiously in the U.S. but strongly in Britain, on Thursday, April 28, the New York Times and two of its senior officers were charged with discrimination by age, sex and race, in a class-action lawsuit filed by a distinguished New York City law firm: Wigdor LLP, specializing in employment law. The clearest early news article appeared in the Guardian newspaper the same day: Rupert Neate, New York Times boss sued over alleged ageist, racist and sexist hiring practices.

Douglas H. Wigdor, lead counsel, is a former founding partner of Thompson Wigdor & Gilly. The recently filed case–Grant, et al. v. The New York Times Company, et al., no. 2016-cv-03175–is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The 61-page complaint document is available on the Web from a free archive of documents.

The senior New York Times officers cited as defendants are Mark Thompson, named chief executive officer in 2012, and Meredith Levien, named chief revenue officer the following year. They are both named as defendants in their “individual and professional capacities,” and a jury trial is demanded.

In support of discovery, Wigdor’s federal court filing seeks “a list of all members of the Age, Race and Gender Classes, including all last known addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of each such person, so Plaintiffs can give such persons notice of this action and an opportunity to make an informed decision about whether to participate in it.” The Guardian estimated a “multimillion-dollar” potential in penalties.

The Times has denied allegations in the lawsuit. Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson, reportedly said the complaint contains “recycled, scurrilous and unjustified attacks” on the news organization and its leaders. She claimed that the “suit is entirely without merit, and we intend to fight it vigorously in court.”

Plaintiffs in a “hostile work environment”: The initial plaintiffs are Ernestine Grant and Marjorie Walker, who have worked for a combined 25 years in the advertising department at the Times. Both are described as black women, aged 62 and 61 respectively. In the complaint document, Wigdor says new patterns of discrimination took hold after Mark Thompson, former head of the BBC in Britain, became chief executive at the Times in 2012.

According to the complaint, Ms. Walker encountered a “hostile work environment” with Amanda Smith, a new supervisor hired by Meredith Levien, the company’s “chief revenue officer”–a newly created position–hired by Mr. Thompson, the new chief executive. Formerly an account manager on the “high-revenue Fashion and Jewelry team,” Ms. Walker was transferred to the Help Wanted sector–”a clear demotion.” WPIX in New York City interviewed Ms. Grant and Ms. Walker, quoting Ms. Walker as saying, “We have relationships and a track record of sales, which I am an example of…[the work environment] said to us we were not wanted and we would be pushed out.”

Previous patterns of discrimination: The lawsuit alleges current patterns of discrimination said to resemble previous ones reported at the BBC while Mr. Thompson led that organization.

• “Mr. Thompson was involved in a highly publicized BBC scandal regarding a decision to bury an expose of child sex abuse allegedly committed by one of the BBC’s most well-known personalities, Jimmy Savile.”

• “Following a slew of allegations of age and gender discrimination at the BBC, Mr. Thompson admitted that during his tenure, the BBC had problems with the way it treated older women.”

According to the complaint, “Mr. Thompson…was embroiled in a scandal that saw the [BBC] squash an important piece of investigative journalism. That piece would have revealed one of the network’s most well-known former personalities, Jimmy Savile, to be a serial pedophile.”

The complaint cites several examples of gender discrimination at the BBC under Mr. Thompson. It says that he “acknowledged that these incidents had served as a ‘wake up call’ and admitted that his company had an institutional problem regarding the treatment of senior and experienced women.”

• “In November, 2008, four female BBC presenters of the…show Countryfile–Michaela Strachan, Charlotte Smith, Miriam O’Reilly and Juliet Morris–all in their 40s and 50s, were dismissed from the program while male hosts John Craven and Adam Henson were kept on.”

• “In July 2009, then 66-year-old Arlene Phillips, a former theater choreographer, was replaced on the Strictly Come Dancing panel by Alesha Dixon, a 30-year-old pop star. The male judges, whose ages ranged from 44 to 81, were all retained.”

A report of abusive treatment: The complaint alleges that at the BBC, “Mr. Thompson was nothing short of an abusive supervisor.” One item describes an encounter with staffer Anthony Massey, who “approached Mr. Thompson to discuss a pending story,” saying that “before Mr. Massey could say a word, Mr. Thompson ‘suddenly turned, snarled and sank his teeth into [Mr. Massey's] left upper arm.’…” The item quotes a newspaper description of the incident: Richard Kay, The day I was bitten by BBC boss, London Evening Standard (UK), March 24, 2005.

Passing the torch: The lawsuit alleges that Mr. Thompson has sought to embed discrimination at the New York Times by hiring managers who support and encourage it, saying, “Mr. Thompson used his sway as CEO to hire in and reward managers who would carry out his vision of the ideal workforce.” Co-defendant Meredith Levien is cited as a prime example, “Mr. Thompson’s first major appointment of a business-side executive.”

According to the complaint document, “At the beginning of her tenure at the Times in 2013, Ms. Levien made it very clear that she was looking for a very particular workforce, one that was filled with ‘fresh faces,’ i.e., younger employees without families…who were white. Ms. Levien’s speech to various Times personnel also was shockingly rife with racially charged innuendos, such as references to the need for employees to be ‘people who look like the people we are selling to.’ Ms. Levien’s remarks gave cover to and outright endorsed increasing disparate treatment against older, female and/or nonwhite employees….”

The recent class-action lawsuit follows at least two other individual lawsuits charging discrimination at business departments of the Times, begun during Mr. Thompson’s leadership.

• “Tracy Quitasol, a 51-year-old Asian-American woman and Executive Director who worked at the Times for nine years, alleged in her federal discrimination complaint against the Times that soon after Ms. Levien became her supervisor, the ‘vast majority’ of the around 30 older (and generally racial/ethnic minority) employees were targeted by Ms. Levien….”

• “Arielle Davies, a Director in the Advertising division of the Times, also came under the supervision of Defendant Levien in or around August, 2013. Ms. Levien…in her first conversation with Ms. Davies, asked whether Ms. Davies had children and, upon learning that Ms. Davies did not, remarked, ‘Good, you should wait.’…[Ms. Davies] was terminated, purportedly in connection with a reduction-in-force…she was the only employee in her department affected….”

According to the recent lawsuit, discrimination at the Times has included “the unlawful denial of promotions, compensation commensurate with younger white employees and equality with respect to the terms and conditions of their employment, including, in many cases, the termination of such employment…generally refusing to provide equal terms and conditions of employment for older, Black and/or female employees.”

Enforcement process: In the federal court filing, Wigdor describes other enforcement process underway against alleged discriminatory practices at the New York Times. A complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is alleging violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The New York City Commission on Human Rights and the Office of Corporation Counsel of the City of New York are also involved.

The complaint against the New York Times says that “diversity has been subverted at every turn throughout the organization….” It cites the abrupt terminations of Janet Robinson as chief executive in 2011 and of Jill Abramson as executive editor in 2014, the first women to hold either position. Both were replaced by men. In 2013, it says Ms. Levien “evaluated” about 30 employees, claiming that “nearly all of those who were over the age of 40 and were people of color soon left their employment with the Times.”

Pursuit of class actions greatly increases potential penalties for the New York Times. Illegal practices of racial discrimination alleged include “paying Black employees…less than similarly situated white employees, failing to promote Black employees…in favor of similarly or less-qualified white employees and failure to prevent, address, properly investigate and/or take remedial action regarding discrimination against Black employees.”

Illegal practices of age discrimination alleged include paying older employees…less than similarly situated young employees, failing to promote older employees…in favor of similarly or less-qualified younger employees and failure to prevent, address, properly investigate and/or take remedial action regarding discrimination against older employees.

Illegal practices of gender discrimination alleged include paying female employees…less than similarly situated male employees, failing to promote female employees…in favor of similarly or less-qualified male employees and failure to prevent, address, properly investigate and/or take remedial action regarding discrimination against female employees.

Wigdor and the plaintiffs are seeking remedies for violations of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Fair Labor Standards Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Equal Pay Act, as well as the state Equal Pay Law and Human Rights Law. The lawsuit alleges that some “actions were intentional, done with malice and/or showed a deliberate, willful, wanton and reckless indifference to Plaintiffs”–seeking additional “awards of punitive damages.” The recent federal complaint also asks for “an injunction and order permanently restraining Defendants from engaging in such unlawful conduct.”

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 29, 2016

Sydney Ember, Suit accuses New York Times executives of bias, New York Times, April 29, 2016

Complaint, Grant, et al. v. The New York Times Company, et al., U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Case no. 2016-cv-03175, filed April 28, 2016

Rupert Neate, New York Times boss sued over alleged ageist, racist and sexist hiring practices, Manchester Guardian (UK), April 28, 2016

Mario Diaz, Current New York Times employees speak with PIX11 regarding discrimination they filed against paper, WPIX (New York, NY), April 28, 2016

Emma Whitford, New York Times executives sued for alleged race, gender, age discrimination, The Gothamist (New York, NY), April 28, 2016

Terrence McCoy, How BBC star Jimmy Savile allegedly got away with abusing 500 children and sex with dead bodies, Washington Post, June 27, 2014

Steven Swinford, Former BBC boss Mark Thompson ‘lied’ over Savile evidence, Nick Pollard claims, London Telegraph (UK), December 11, 2013

Tom McCarthy, Mark Thompson spared heavy criticism in BBC Jimmy Savile report, Manchester Guardian (UK), December 19, 2012

Richard Kay, The day I was bitten by BBC boss, London Evening Standard (UK), March 24, 2005

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