A civil rights lawsuit in which a former associate editor of the New York Post alleges she was forced out because of her race and gender has survived a defense motion for summary judgment after a federal judge found proof that the newspaper and some of its top employees fostered a racially and sexually hostile workplace.
In a decision Monday, Southern District Judge Lorna Schofield said Sandra Guzman produced sufficient evidence to suggest the Post’s assertion that she was fired for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons is a pretext to cover up its racial and gender discrimination.
Schofield granted summary judgment to the paper’s corporate parent, News Corp., but is permitting the case against the Post and its editor-in-chief, Col Allan, to proceed.
Schofield’s lengthy opinion in Guzman v. News Corporation, 09-cv-09323, resulted from protracted discovery and portrays a newsroom culture polluted with racial and sexual crudity, at least during the six years the plaintiff worked at the Post.
According to the decision, Guzman testified that sexually charged conversations were routine in the newsroom, that one top editor once equated a Latino baseball player to a “criminal” and asked whether he brought a gun or machete to an interview, and that a photography editor described his staff of young, attractive women as his “harem.”
She said a manager routinely stared at female employees’ breasts and buttocks, looked her “up and down” as though she were naked and licked his lips while leering at her in an overtly sexual manner.
Guzman said a columnist regularly greeted her by singing “I Want to Live in America,” from West Side Story, with a Spanish accent. She said the “voracious sexual appetite” and exploits of a former star columnist were described by a top editor at a bar frequented by Post employees.
And she said editorial department employees “widely discussed” a young, female copy assistant who allegedly got a permanent reporting job in exchange for performing oral sex on an editor.
Guzman contends that a racist and sexist atmosphere cultivated by Post managers created a culture that ultimately led to her dismissal in 2009.
Schofield said the evidence Guzman proffered is sufficient to allow her suit against the Post and Allan to proceed. She is represented by Kenneth Thompson of Thompson Wigdor, his partner, Douglas Wigdor, and their senior associate, Lawrence Pearson. Thompson is currently the Democratic candidate for Brooklyn district attorney.
“We are very pleased with Judge Schofield’s thoughtful decision,” Wigdor said. “Ms. Guzman will now have a trial on her discrimination and retaliation claims.”
Marc Kasowitz of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, lead attorney for the defendants, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the Post said the company is pleased that the action against the parent company, News Corp., was dismissed and said the newspaper is looking “forward to presenting the truth about the remaining charges, which are completely unfounded, to a jury.”
‘Hostile’ Work Environment
Records show that Guzman, who is black and Hispanic, was hired as associate editor in July 2003 to create and edit a monthly section called Tempo, which was geared toward the Hispanic community. Tempo was discontinued in 2009 when advertising revenue plummeted, and Guzman was fired from her $137,807 position and escorted out of the building.
Guzman alleges her termination followed a number of incidents, including one in which she complained vigorously about a political cartoon the Post published depicting a dead monkey who had been shot by police officers, one of whom comments: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next Stimulus Bill.”
Guzman viewed the cartoon as a racist slap at President Barack Obama, although the paper claimed the chimp was meant to depict Congress and not the president.
Schofield said the Post offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory explanation for Guzman’s termination—namely, that they could no longer justify Guzman’s high salary when the Tempo section was suspended and did not have another suitable position for her. That shifted burden back to the plaintiff to establish that the explanation was a pretext.
“Ms. Guzman has pointed to evidence sufficient, when the inferences are drawn in her favor, to permit a reasonable jury to conclude that Defendants stated reasons for terminating her employment were pretextual,” Schofield wrote. “Plaintiff has submitted evidence sufficient for a jury to conclude that Defendants were aware of Ms. Guzman’s complaints about the Cartoon and the racist and sexist environment at the Post.”
Schofield said the Post clearly has a First Amendment right to “publish editorial content, even offensive editorial content,” and she said the papers’s decision to run the cartoon did not factor into her decision.
“However, while Guzman cannot bring an employment discrimination claim against the Post for publishing an allegedly racist cartoon, her hostile work environment claim also encompasses the way that the Post dealt with the publication of the Cartoon and the issues that arose after the Cartoon was published, including the increased racial tensions in the office,” Schofield wrote.
The judge noted that while the paper claims Guzman’s position was eliminated because the Tempo section failed, the plaintiff countered that the section was not discontinued until after she was fired. Additionally, Schofield suggested Guzman could have been transferred to an open editorial position, albeit at a substantial cut in pay.
Schofield refused to let Allan out of the case, finding that he was part of the executive committee that made the decision to fire Guzman, allegedly for discriminatory and retaliatory reasons, and that his alleged “comments and behavior also ostensibly contributed to her hostile work environment.”
Allan was not immediately available for comment.
@|John Caher can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.