June 1, 2017

Fox News Pummeled With Claims It Violated New York City Human Rights Laws

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Americans have grown accustomed to Fox News’ reputation for airing scandalous news, but lately it has been the subject of scandalous news as often as it is reporting it. The wave of discrimination lawsuits against Fox News continues to grow, with several new lawsuits filed on May 22, 2017. At some point soon, the phrase “tsunami of suits” may not be hyperbole. Where did this wave of suits begin? Like any wave, it’s hard to identify a precise starting point, but the current wave had grown to sizeable proportions by the summer of 2016, when Chief Executive Officer Roger Ailes was fired as a result of mounting claims of sexual harassment. Last month, in April 2017, the famed Bill O’Reilly was fired after advertisers began a boycott in light of the New York Times investigative report that Fox paid $13 million to settle sexual harassment claims against O’Reilly but kept him on the air. The wave of suits continues to grow. Indeed, three new lawsuits were filed on May 22, 2017, asserting similar allegations of racial and/or sexual discrimination and harassment. Allegations of discrimination and harassment have been lodged against many high-level Fox employees, including the Chief Executive Officer and the Head Comptroller, as well as against top-rated newscasters. “We have a culture of systemic and institutional racial bias,” Plaintiff Kelly Wright said. “I can no longer sit in silence.” His attorney, Douglas Wigdor of Wigdor LLP—which represents twenty-three individuals suing Fox News—commented that, “When it comes to racial discrimination, 21st Century Fox has been operating as if it should be called 18th Century Fox.” Although many discrimination lawsuits have been filed against Fox News, a single, local law—the New York City Human Rights Law, New York City Administrative Code § 8-101 et seq.—is the entire basis for many of these high-profile cases. These lawsuits’ complete reliance on the New York City Administrative Code claim may be surprising at first glance, but a review of the available remedies makes abundantly clear why it is all a litigant needs for a multi-million dollar case. For purposes of illustration, consider the cases of Julie Roginsky v. Fox News Network LLC, et al., filed in New York’s Supreme Court and the case of Gretchen Carlson v. Roger Ailes [former Fox CEO], filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey where Ailes resides. The two lawsuits, filed in different states, one against the individual executive and the other against Fox News itself and several defendants, both rely exclusively on the New York City Human Rights Law. New York Administrative Code section 8-120 is the key provision defining the remedies of a private litigant. Those remedies include: (1) hiring, reinstatement or upgrading of employees; (2) the award of back pay and front pay; (5) the extension of full, equal and unsegregated accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges; (6) evaluating applications for membership in a club that is not distinctly private without discrimination based on race, creed, color, age, national origin, disability, marital status, partnership status, gender, sexual orientation or alienage or citizenship status; (7) selling, renting or leasing, or approving the sale, rental or lease of housing accommodations, land or commercial space or an interest therein, or the provision of credit with respect thereto, without unlawful discrimination; (8) payment of compensatory damages to the person aggrieved by such practice; and (9) submission of reports with respect to the manner of compliance; and (10) payment of the complainant's reasonable attorney's fees, expert fees and other costs. The commission may consider matter-specific factors when determining the complainant's attorney's fee award…. Thus, Section 8-120 provides for the potential to recover almost any type of remedy, including back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, reinstatement, costs, and attorney fees. Even more striking than the private remedies are the remedies the State can recover. Section 8-126 provides that the commission may impose a civil penalty of $125,000 against any person that “engaged in an unlawful discriminatory practice” and, “[w]here the commission finds that an unlawful discriminatory practice was the result of the respondent's willful, wanton or malicious act, the commission may, to vindicate the public interest, impose a civil penalty of not more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars [$250,000].” In addition, Section 8-124 provides additional penalties for violating a commission order, and Section 8-129 provides criminal penalties. With such a comprehensive list of potential remedies, it is not surprising that many suing Fox News have based their entire lawsuits around the New York City Human Rights Law. It’s not yet clear how pervasive these Fox allegations will become. Dozens have already come forward and revealed they too experienced discrimination and harassment at the network. One thing is clear: the New York Human Rights Law will continue to be a centerpiece of these mounting disputes.