Sep 17, 2007

Sexual Harassment, Retaliation Trial Against Isiah Thomas

There's trouble in the garden -- Madison Square Garden, that is. The coach of the New York Knicks, former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas, is accused of sexually harassing Anucha Browne Sanders, a former team vice president. Browne Sanders claims that Thomas called her crude names and made unwanted sexual advances towards her. And that's not all: Browne Sanders also claims that she was fired in retaliation for complaining about the harassment. (For a nice summary of the details of the complaint, see the New York Times article, "Sexual Harassment Case Against Thomas Is Set to Open," by Richard Sandomir.")

Retaliation claims can be especially dangerous - and expensive - for employers. An employee can win a retaliation case even if she can't ultimately convince a jury that she was sexually harassed. If the employee can prove that she was fired or otherwise faced negative consequences for complaining of harassment, that's a separate violation of the antidiscrimination laws.

One of the interesting things about this case (aside from a witness list that includes the team's star point guard, Stephon Marbury) is that the Chairman of the Garden admitted (in a deposition) that Browne Sanders could have kept her job had she not asked other employees to remember incidents that would have supported her claims during the Garden's investigation of her sexual harassment complaint. (The defendants also claim that Browne Sanders had performance problems.) Browne Sanders claims that this was protected activity under the antidiscrimination laws; the defendants claim that she was tampering with the investigation. Ultimately, a jury will decide whose interpretation is correct.

The lesson here for employers? Tread very carefully when you're considering discipline against an employee who has made a complaint -- especially a complaint that alleges sordid details against a well-known figure and is sure to make the newspapers. Particularly if your reason for discipline has anything to do with the complaint or the underlying incidents, you can expect a plaintiff's lawyer to be very interested.

Lisa Guerin

Update: On October 2, 2007, the jury awarded $11.6 million in punitive damages to Browne Sanders. The breakdown: $6 million for the hostile environment sexual harassment claim and $5.6 million for the retaliation claim (the jury has yet to decide how much Browne Sanders should receive for lost wages and other economic damages). These damages are to be paid by Madison Square Garden and James Dolan, chairman of the parent company to the Knicks and the Garden. The jury couldn't reach a decision on whether Thomas should also pay punitive damages. The defendants have vowed to appeal.

Also, for managers who want to learn more about investigating complaints about employees, check out my book The Essential Guide to Workplace Investigations: How to Handle Employee Complaints & Problems (Nolo).