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In February, former talk show host Tavis Smiley (“Smiley”) filed a Complaint against PBS, asserting that sexual misconduct allegations against him were untrue and were used as an excuse to terminate his employment. On March 20, 2018, PBS responded by filing an Answer to Smiley’s suit. Answers are defendants’ responses to complaints containing defendants’ version of events and can, as in this case, contain defenses offered in response to the plaintiff’s claims as well as counterclaims suing the plaintiff. PBS’ counterclaims include details from the harassment investigation, and it’s also seeking $1.9 million in unused funds from producing his show.

According to PBS’ Answer to Smiley’s suit, after renewing the Tavis Smiley Show in November of 2017, PBS received a complaint from a former subordinate of Smiley asserting that Smiley had repeatedly engaged in sexual misconduct. Subsequently, PBS brought in an outside law firm to conduct an investigation into the complaint.

Through the course of the investigation, several others who had worked with Smiley made similar claims of inappropriate behavior and sexual misconduct; the Answer specifically refers to patterns of “having sexual encounters with subordinates,” “making unwanted sexual advances toward subordinates, including requests for specific sexual acts,” “making inappropriate sexual jokes or lewd comments, including about subordinates’ body parts,” and “creating a verbally abusive and threatening work environment, including that he aggressively cursed at and belittled subordinates.”

The Answer also states that Smiley admitted to some of the conduct and refused to waive non-disclosure agreements that he had required subordinates to sign. Smiley has publically denied these allegations, and a spokesperson for him stated that PBS’ Answer and counterclaims were “[m]ore lies, half-truths and smears from PBS from an ‘investigation’ that never should have happened, with a result that was decided well before the inquiry was even begun. We look forward to the full truth coming out in court.”

COUNSEL TO MANAGEMENT:

As we have reported here and here, with the steadily growing societal, political, and media focus on sexual harassment and non-disclosure agreements in the workplace, it is vital that employers are prepared to minimize the risk of harassment claims and root out, train, and prevent sexual harassment to the best of their abilities. This can include implementing a zero-tolerance harassment policy, providing multichannel complaint procedures, and/or assuring employees they will not be subject to retaliation for making a harassment complaint or participating in an investigation. Additionally, legislation has been introduced at several levels that would ban pre-dispute arbitration agreements of sexual misconduct claims, and new sexual harassment prevention training laws have already been implemented in California. All eyes are on this issue, so if you have questions about handling sexual harassment claims within your company, please contact the experts at The Saqui Law Group.

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