A Hong Kong court has ruled that an investment bank wrongly fired a senior trader for circulating a video that included a link to a parody video featuring Adolf Hitler, as portrayed in the 2004 move “Downfall.”
Grant Williams, the former Asia head of equity trading at Jefferies Group, sued his ex-employer in 2011 for wrongful dismissal, claiming $1.7 million in damages. He was fired by the New York-based bank in December 2010, just after sent out the link in late 2010 as part of a daily newsletter he edited and circulated to about 900 clients. Jefferies said sending out the link was “unacceptable and entirely inappropriate misconduct” and senior Jefferies executives later testified that they thought it was racist and anti-Semitic.
In a decision issued June 20, Hong Kong High Court Judge Conrad Seagroatt called the reaction of Jefferies management “verging upon the absurd,” and “palpably unfair.”
The judge noted that such “Downfall” video parodies were extremely common on the Internet but Jefferies management seemed unaware of this and otherwise “displayed significant errors of comprehension.” Williams did not create the video he linked to, but Jefferies executives seemed to think he had. Others also thought he had “embedded” the video in the newsletter.
“Downfall” parody videos generally show a scene from the German-language movie in which Hitler is being told by his advisors that the war is lost, but with the English subtitles changed to humorously address a wide variety of topics. The parody Williams linked addressed a conspiracy theory alleging JP Morgan Chase was manipulating the price of silver.
Judge Seagraott said it was clear that the main concern of Jefferies’ management was possibly offending JP Morgan chief executive Jamie Dimon.
“At some stage that prime concern was broadened into a suggestion—tantamount as I find to a taint or smear—that somehow the plaintiff through the reference to Hitler, and indirectly the Hitler video, was inferentially indulging in racism and/or anti Semitism,” the judge wrote, adding, “I have concluded that the suggestion of racism and/or anti Semitism emerged as an ex post facto justification for the plaintiff’s dismissal perhaps to screen or act as a makeweight for the real reason to which I have referred a little earlier.”
Rulings on the damages will be made at a later time.
Jefferies Hong Kong Ltd. was represented by Jose Maurellet, who was instructed by Simmons & Simmons.
Williams was represented by barrister Ashley Burn, who was instructed by Hong Kong firm Howse Williams Bowers.