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Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Harold Reynolds Sues ESPN for Wrongful Termination

Back in July, we discussed ESPN's decision to fire baseball analyst Harold Reynolds for allegedly sexually harassing a female employee. His firing in July occurred only four months after the 11-year employee had signed a six-year contract that would have paid him approximately $1 million annually. Be sure to check out the outstanding comments in response to that post. We debated the extent to which the workplace "situation" in which ESPN anchors find themselves--being famous ex-jocks or sports guys around young women in a college campus-style setting--might cause or encourage some of them to do really stupid things. In other words, we wondered whether ESPN has created a workplace environment akin to a male locker room, or whether this is really about the individual wrongdoers and not about their workplace.

Yesterday Reynolds struck back at ESPN, filing a wrongful termination lawsuit. His lawsuit seeks at least $5 million for the lost contract and unspecified amounts for "damages for lost future opportunities." Significantly, his employment contract included a clause that enabled ESPN to void the deal if Reynolds engaged in behavior that "would constitute an act of moral turpitude," but according to Reynolds, ESPN has never given him a "specific reason" for his firing.

Wrongful termination claims provide a wide-range of legal theories for discharged employees to recover. For instance, a successful wrongful termination can arise if the termination was the result of discrimination (race/gender/age/handicap/marital status etc.); violation of a statute; violation of an implied or oral contract; preventing an employee from receiving a benefit that is about to accrue; or a violation of public policy. If they have an employment contract--like Reynolds--they can also sue for breach of contract. In certain instances, although not apparently in Reynolds' instance, wrongfully discharged employees can also recover under tort law, including claims for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

According to the media coverage of Reynolds' complaint, he will argue that his contract's moral turpitude class was overly-ambiguous and that ESPN fired him in a more rapid and less deliberative way than they have fired, or would have fired, other employees for similar allegations. Along those lines, Reynolds will contend that ESPN failed to properly investigate the allegations leading to his discharge, and that its workplace environment contributed to, and perhaps even rewarded, sexist behavior.

Should this case go to trial, it will be interesting to see what details emerge about the ESPN workplace. Reynolds v. ESPN might unintentionally update Michael Freeman's ESPN: The Uncensored History (2001).

Update: Will Li alerts me that The Smoking Gun has just posted Reynolds' complaint, which was drafted by Reynolds' attorney, Joseph Garrison of Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Chimes & Richardson, P.C. in New Haven, Connecticut. As usual, Will also has some great comments and thoughts:

A couple of interesting things:

"During negotiations for any contract, ESPN raised no specific concerns about any past conduct or performance." (#9 from Reynolds' complaint)

Weren't there allegations of previous problems between HR and female co-workers? That said, the language in this doesn't say that there were not past incidents, just that ESPN did not include them in contract negotiations or put language in writing recognizing any previous incidents.

Items 14 and 15 are interesting - apparently ESPN hasn't been compliant with either Harold Reynolds's lawyer or the Connecticut Dept of Labor in providing a personnel file on Reynolds. This seems a bit strange to me if it's true, especially the part about not allowing "an employee of the Connecticut Department of Labor onto its premises."

The possibility of bureaucratic stalling aside, when corporations (like ESPN and Google) have basically created microcosms for their employees, where living and working are all essentially taken care of by the corporation, does the corporation take on additional liability, both to its employees and to the state? I don't know if that question makes complete sense.

Also, the suit does allow that Harold did hug an intern, and the fact that she did not complain for three weeks doesn't really mean a whole lot, in my opinion. That said, ESPN has been extremely tolerant of bad behavior by its celebrities in the past, and while it obviously doesn't condone his actions, it does make his immediate firing suspect. It will be interesting to see how ESPN responds to this.


"Reynolds contends that, at the time of the 'brief hug,' the intern 'never expressed any discomfort' and that she had dinner with him that same evening at a Boston Market restaurant."

HR makes $1 million a year and he takes her to dinner at Boston Market?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/31/2006 3:21 PM  

2 points --

Apparently this intern wasn't that uncomfortable if she had dinner with him that night.

ESPN has a lot of explaining to do. They hired Steve Phillips AFTER he was accused of sexual harrasment. They extended Michael Irvin's contract after he was arrested for a crack pipe.

And most egregious is the actions by Mike Tirico that have been well documented over the years. They must have a standard.

One final point...If they aren't transparent after mediation discussions with Harold Reynold's personnel file they must have made a blunder.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/02/2006 6:05 PM  

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