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Disney Beats Sexual Harassment Retaliation Lawsuit

An ex-archivist asserted that the entertainment company has a "history of cover-ups," but a judge rules that he can't prove one here.

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In a lawsuit exploring the repercussions of office romance, the Walt Disney Company has prevailed against a former manager in its archives division.

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In February 2013, Robert Klein sued the entertainment giant after he was terminated. The plaintiff claimed that he was let go and then blackballed in the industry after he went to human resources to report a female colleague, photo library supervisor Andrea Carbone, whom he believed was blackmailing and sexually harassing a male subordinate named Kiara Gellar. Klein says he didn't know that the two had a prior relationship, and after HR investigated, both he and Carbone were let go.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Philip Gutierrez granted Disney's motion for summary judgment.

Although Disney scored a win, it wasn't before the California federal judge examined the interesting issue over whether discrimination laws protect an employee from opposing an unlawful employment practice on someone else's behalf or merely his or her own.

Contrary to Disney's arguments that Klein hadn't engage in protected activity by coming forward for someone else and as part of his managerial duties, Judge Gutierrez concludes that the law doesn't "limit protection based on who the individual doing the complaining might be, or to whom the complaint is made known. If anything, [the relevant statute] makes clear that its protections apply to not just some employees, but to 'any employee' who opposes discrimination, including managers and subordinates alike."

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Unfortunately for Klein, who has written books about Disney, this only gets him to the next step in the judge's analysis regarding alleged retaliation.

Disney fired Klein after the HR investigators reported that he had failed to disclose his knowledge of Carbone's relationship with Gellar, whom Klein had hired. An HR supervisor is said to have consented to the termination because of Klein's lack of judgment in engaging Gellar to work under Carbone.

While Klein disputed HR's findings, he had trouble establishing "causation" — that his whistle-blowing about sexual harassment in the workplace was what specifically led to his firing. The plaintiff pointed to the fact that everyone in HR had relied on the "biased" statements from Carbone, but the judge responds that he "fails at the threshold because he makes no attempt to link Ms. Carbone's purported bias" with the decision to terminate him.

The judge writes that there's no evidence that Carbone knew that it was Klein who had reported the sexual harassment, nor that "Carbone offered her ostensibly biased statements with any hope of digging Plaintiff’s professional grave, rather than inoculating herself from liability in light of the allegations of sexual harassment leveled against her."

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In his lawsuit, Klein, the ex-Disney archivist, asserted that Disney has a "history of cover-ups" and encourages employees "not to report sexual harassment for fear of retaliation," but after looking at the extensive materials offered in support of that, Judge Gutierrez comes to a far different conclusion, writing that a "culture of silence does not exist" at the Disney company as sexual harassment complaints fly, and in some cases, are taken care of with employee firings.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner