When an award-winning news producer was fired from his job at CNN, the company claimed it was due to plagiarism. The former employee filed a lawsuit saying that reason was pretextual and he was a victim of racial discrimination and retaliation. CNN fired back that the case should be dropped because to decide otherwise would be a violation of the company’s First Amendment rights under anti-SLAPP laws. That motion was initially granted. The case was appealed up to the California Supreme Court, which ruled last year the claim might be subject to dismissal under the state’s anti-SLAPP law – specifically the company’s right to exercise editorial control over its news content. However, the case was remanded to determine if plaintiff’s underlying claim had merit enough to proceed in spite of that concern.
Now, a California appellate court has ruled in Wilson v. CNN that plaintiff’s claim has the minimal amount of merit to proceed. The case now proceeds to trial.
As our Los Angeles racial discrimination attorneys can explain, anti-SLAPP laws are intended to dismiss early on lawsuits without merit when they are filed against persons or organizations for the exercise of First Amendment rights (freedom of speech, the press, religion, peaceable assembly and to petition the government for redress of grievances). SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Anti-SLAPP laws were passed in response to a trend of lawsuits filed in retaliation to intimidate or silence critics and opponents who speak out publicly. In a lot of those cases, the underlying legal theories (tortious interference, defamation, etc.) were actually secondary to the true intent, which was to silence public opposition.
In this case, plaintiff had worked as a producer for CNN for 18 years at the time he was fired in 2014. By then, he’d won three Emmy awards and received numerous favorable performance reviews. Roughly a decade before he was terminated, he began raising concerns within the agency about the treatment of black employees. The story that allegedly triggered his firing was one regarding a retired sheriff’s deputy. The news agency said portions of his work were plagiarized from the LA Times. An audit of his work reportedly revealed other plagiarized works.
The former producer, however, said this was pretextual. The real reason he was fired was in retaliation for his complaints about workplace racial discrimination against employees of color, he said. He also alleged age discrimination and association with a disabled person (his wife).
CNN filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court granted. The appellate court reversed. The state supreme court noted that the question in the first stage of an anti-SLAPP case is whether the defendant made an initial showing that the action in plaintiff’s underlying claim was statutorily protected. CNN had established that. But then the question is whether the plaintiff’s claims arose from protected conduct. The court rejected the news outlet’s broad argument that because it’s a news organization, all of its decisions about hiring and firing of content producers are categorically matters of free speech. In other words, news agencies aren’t immune from anti-discrimination laws just because enforcement of those laws has an incidental impact on the press’s news gathering and reporting efforts. The court held that if the agency fired the producer for plagiarism, that would be justified. However, if the firing stemmed in part because of the employee’s previous complaints about discrimination, then it would not.
The appellate court is now remanding the case back to the trial court. This doesn’t mean the plaintiff has won. He’ll still have to prove that the plagiarism allegation was merely a pretext for discrimination.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
Wilson v. CNN, Feb. 4, 2020, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division One