Viacom Must Face Ex-BET Exec's Defamation and Discrimination Suit

Zola Mashariki has convinced the court, for now, that the BET parent company acted as her employer.
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Zola Mashariki

Viacom and BET can't dodge discrimination and defamation claims from a former executive, as a California federal judge on Thursday denied in part their motions to dismiss and is allowing the ousted exec another shot at pleading the claims that he found insufficient.

Zola Mashariki sued in March, claiming she was terminated while on medical leave for breast cancer treatment and alleging that she was subjected to repeated gender discrimination and harassment by then-president of programming Stephen Hill. 

She also says BET and Viacom questioned her cancer diagnosis, interfered with her short-term disability request and suggested that she was "faking" the illness. According to Mashariki's complaint, the company also confirmed false information about her exit to the press, specifically that she was terminated because of her performance. 

Both the network and Hill moved to dismiss the suit on what U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez classified as five distinct grounds. In short, they argue: Mashariki's complaint is a vague "shotgun pleading" that doesn't meet federal requirements; she failed to state a viable defamation claim; her contract is with BET and Viacom should be dismissed; Hill can't be held liable as a matter of law for hostile work environment and gender discrimination claims; and Mashariki failed to state a plausible hostile work environment claim against Hill. 

Gutierrez found that Mashariki's complaint may utilize techniques some courts have criticized, but it also makes clear the claims against defendants and the factual allegations underlying each claim.

Mashariki identified four statements as defamatory in her complaint and added a fifth in a later filing. Gutierrez dismissed with leave to amend claims related to four of the statements, finding Mashariki didn't include sufficient detail about who made the statements and the means by which they were made. 

Gutierrez denied BET's motion to dismiss in regard to the fifth statement, which was made by BET CEO Debra Lee in an email and addresses Mashariki's departure. 

The court hasn't yet addressed the "thorny question" of whether Mashariki should be considered a public figure for purposes of her defamation claims because it found she "has sufficiently pleaded malice at this stage regardless of how she is ultimately classified."

Viacom is clear of liability for that statement, for now. Gutierrez found Mashariki had not adequately established whether Lee's statement was made within the scope of her employment as an employee of the parent company, but he's allowing the ousted exec to amend her claim.

As to the employment-based claims, Gutierrez found Mashariki has pleaded sufficient facts to establish that Viacom acted as her employer and he denied the motion to dismiss as to those claims.

Hill is off the hook for Mashariki's Title VII hostile work environment and FEHA gender discrimination claims. She stipulated they should be dismissed in her opposition, so Gutierrez granted Hill's motion to dismiss without leave to amend.

Hill will have to face Mashariki's FEHA claim for hostile work environment, including allegations that he targeted women of color and harassed her. Taking her factual allegations as true, Gutierrez found she plead "more than enough specific instances of harassment to state a plausible claim."

Mashariki has until Sept. 14 to amend her complaint.

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