Reporter v. Texas Television Station and Media Company
Sedgwick obtained a jury verdict for our clients, a Texas television station and a media outlet, in an employment and labor action filed in Texas state court. A reporter brought racial discrimination and retaliation claims against our clients after her contract was not renewed. Sedgwick argued that the station in no way discriminated against this reporter. Aside from having a contractual right to terminate her employment, the station had numerous written evaluations that documented years of inconsistent performance by this reporter. In less than an hour of deliberations, the jury found that our clients neither discriminated nor retaliated against the reporter in terminating her contract.
Inside the Courtroom: Sedgwick’s Michael Shaunessy and Erin Williams Show Courtroom Experience in Trial Win
Sedgwick attorneys Michael Shaunessy and Erin Williams used their litigation experience and trial know-how to win a jury trial on behalf of our clients, a television news station and its parent company, in a case in which a TV reporter alleged racial discrimination and retaliation.
Facts in the Case
The plaintiff, a Hispanic female reporter, was an award-winning journalist who had worked in television news for more than two decades. She had even been named “Hispanic Broadcaster of the Year” a few months before she was fired. Despite her accolades as a journalist, the plaintiff had been a problematic employee for the station. In order to get the big story, she would often cut corners, resulting in news stories that deceived the viewers and her news station employer. For example, in an interview she conducted with a man who had a history of break-ins at his business/home, she told the news station that the man had consented to be interviewed; raw footage showed, however, that the man had said he did not want to be interviewed.
As a result of these and similar problems, the plaintiff received some bad evaluations from her employer and a warning that the station would terminate her if her behavior did not improve. After the plaintiff was eventually suspended, she alleged racial discrimination and retaliation. The station brought in Shaunessy as counsel to investigate the claims. During the course of the investigation, the plaintiff was uncooperative and refused to be interviewed. After the investigation was completed, the plaintiff was fired. Once fired, she initially filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, but withdrew the charge in 2008 and got a right to sue letter from the EEOC. She filed a lawsuit against the station and the network.
The plaintiff’s first move was to seek discovery from all of the network’s stations, which numbered more than 40. Shaunessy and Williams successfully argued against these massive discovery requests as violating individuals’ privacy rights and being too broad, making the plaintiff back off of these requests.
Shaunessy and Williams began developing a theme that they would use throughout the trial, which was: the plaintiff, while a good reporter, behaved as though workplace rules did not apply to her. All employees at the station were evaluated on both the quality of their work product and their ability to work with other members of the team, something the plaintiff did not do well.
During jury selection, Shaunessy and Williams sought intelligent, knowledgeable and educated people to serve on the jury. They stressed to the jury that even if the plaintiff did her job well, she could not get along with others or be supervised. During voir dire, Shaunessy and Williams ran into a hitch – potential jurors who believed they had received unfair evaluations from their workplace supervisors. During questioning, they found that many of the jurors believed that a large corporation will discriminate against people if it can get away with it. During the trial, Shaunessy and Williams rehabilitated those jurors by showing through the evidence that the termination was reasonable and justified based on the news stations’ policies and the plaintiff’s behavior. Shaunessy and Williams showed the jurors that it was reasonable to hold the plaintiff accountable for failing to comply with the news stations’ policies on discrimination and she interacted with coworkers.
Their clients, which had not taken an employment case to trial in Texas since 1997, opted to go to trial in this matter despite an initial hesitancy. The decision was made because they believed the local news station had properly documented its actions in this matter, and it could not get a meaningful costs of defense settlement reached with plaintiff. Nine months before trial, their clients offered to settle the case for $110,000 but the plaintiff wanted $400,000. On the eve of trial, their clients offered $250,000 but the plaintiff wanted $370,000, so the case went to trial. Shaunessy and Williams had also conducted the internal investigations in this case and the clients felt confident in the chances for a successful outcome.
During the trial, Shaunessy and Williams outlined a well-documented history of problems with the plaintiff. They painstakingly went through, year by year, problems management had had with the plaintiff. Shaunessy and Williams hammered home to the jury that this was an instance of an employee who was a good reporter but a bad employee. They showed evidence of the plaintiff’s evaluations, which consistently showed that she had problems with being supervised and working with other employees.
They used their trial experience to their advantage. For instance, a limine motion prevented Shaunessy and Williams from bringing up the plaintiff’s two previous claims against a California network and another Texas station, but when the plaintiff’s attorneys introduced evidence that referenced those claims, Shaunessy and Williams seized the opportunity and brought up those previous claims during closing argument.
Additionally, Shaunessy and Williams showed that, while the station had clearly documented all of the problems it had had with the employee over the years, the plaintiff never complained that the station’s treatment of her was unfair or unreasonable.
“The real issue is everyone is evaluated based on not just how good you are at your job but how good you are at getting along with others, working as part of a team, and critically important, accepting supervision,” Shaunessy said.
On cross-examination, Shaunessy and Williams got the plaintiff to admit to lying. In her last televised interview with the station, she lied to management about an interviewee consenting to an interview. She testified that she never lies. Shaunessy and Williams showed that she not only lied to management about gaining consent for the interview, she also lied to the interviewee about meeting him.
Shaunessy and Williams also pointed out to the jury during closing argument that while the plaintiff had been a voracious note writer during her career, as well as the trial, there were no notes or written complaints from her during her entire tenure at the station about being discriminated against.
Another turning point in the trial was the testimony of an older cameraman who worked at the station. The cameraman refused to work with the plaintiff after she had mistreated him. Shaunessy and Williams did everything they could to make him comfortable testifying, but it was still evident that he was terrified to be in the same courtroom with the plaintiff. He testified that she once grabbed him by his belt loop when he did not do what she wanted him to do. He also testified how demeaning she treated other employees. The jury said afterward that the cameraman’s testimony had been compelling.
Shortening the Defense
Based on how the trial was proceeding and the possibility of an out-of-country witness being subpoenaed by the plaintiff, Shaunessy and Williams made a strategic decision to shorten their defense and not to call every witness on their list. They made this decision based on their extensive experience with jurors and their sense that this jury had heard enough. Shaunessy and Williams’ case took about 20 percent of the time the plaintiff took to present her case.
The jury deliberated less than 30 minutes before returning a verdict in favor of Shaunessy and Williams’ client.
“The biggest factors in our victory were that we and our clients were very well-prepared and that we were able to develop a very clear theme that the plaintiff did not feel workplace rules applied to her,” Shaunessy said. “We drove that theme home from the beginning of the trial through closing.”