The Times’ Bad Timing Leads to Hot Water

The New York Times recently terminated the employment of its first female Executive Editor, Jill Abramson.  It certainly raised eyebrows that she was fired after less than three years on the job.  But the timing of her termination garnered even more attention when the public learned that Ms. Abramson had recently raised concerns about her compensation. Specifically, after learning that she may have been paid less than her male predecessors, Ms. Abramson hired an attorney to represent her in salary discussions.  She was fired shortly after she retained counsel.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees or job applicants from what are called “adverse employment actions” (meaning termination, demotion, harassment etc.) in retaliation for complaints made to their employers about discrimination. If she was fired, even in part, because she made a good-faith complaint about potentially discriminatory compensation based on her sex, then the New York Times arguably wrongfully terminated her employment. This retaliation claim can survive even if the employer is able to demonstrate that the underlying claim was without merit.  In other words – even if the Times could show that she was compensated fairly, if it fired her because she complained the Times is still in trouble.  Perhaps noticing its misstep, the New York Times quickly entered into a settlement agreement with Ms. Abramson.

Terminating an employee is never an easy or desirable situation, but advice from counsel is crucial to avoid legal blunders like the one potentially made by the New York Times.