BET Executive on Leave With Breast Cancer Threatens Legal Action Over Termination

BET Zola Mashariki attends the BET Hosted Reception at Riverhorse - Getty-H 2017
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

Two days after BET shocked many in the industry with its decision to dismiss president of programming Stephen Hill and head of originals Zola Mashariki, the latter is poised to take legal action amid claims she has not been terminated.

In a memo to BET staff obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, Mashariki opens up about her December breast cancer diagnosis and says she is still under contract. The executive noted in the email to staff (below) that she has been on medical leave since Feb. 6 — with a tentative return date of April 11 pending results of her forthcoming surgery. 

"My client, Zola Mashariki, was not terminated prior to taking medical leave. We know that events related to this matter are unfolding rapidly. We will provide our response and the full story in the lawsuit we intend to file," said Felicia Medina, San Francisco managing partner at Sanford Heisler, a national civil-rights law firm which represents employees against powerful interests.

BET, in a statement to THR, stood by its decision to dismiss Mashariki: "These claims misrepresent the facts and are without merit. We strongly deny any allegation of wrongdoing."

The executive shake-up came as a surprise given that Viacom CEO Bob Bakish identified BET as one of its six "core brands" as part of his plan to rejuvenate the media conglomerate. (The others being Nick, Nick Jr., Comedy Central, MTV and Paramount Network, with the latter set to rebrand from Spike TV in January.) 

Sources say Mashariki's memo to staff was sent out after multiple outlets, including THR, reported her exit Wednesday. In the memo, Mashariki notes that her post is protected by the Family Medical Leave Act.

Insiders at BET maintain Mashariki was let go because of performance issues that predated her claims of discrimination and retaliation — as well as her notification to Viacom of her need for medical leave. Viacom is said to have conducted what a comprehensive investigation into Mashariki's claims and found no evidence to support them.

As for Hill's dismissal, sources note Viacom was notified that he may have attempted to access Mashariki's medical files and questioned the validity of her breast cancer diagnosis — and purportedly addressed the matter in a staff meeting. The matter escalated to Bakish, who made the decision to dismiss Hill from his post as president of programming.

Hill and Mashariki were most recently photographed together in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where BET hosted a reception to support scripted drama Rebel, created by Amani Walker.

Mashariki joined BET in April 2015 and oversaw scripted and unscripted programming as well as development and casting. She reported directly to Hill. BET was her first role in TV. The executive — a member of THR's Next Gen class of 2006 and a graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard Law School — came to BET after a 15-year run at Fox Searchlight, where she rose to senior vp production. Mashariki has been recognized by the National Association of Black Female Executives in Media and Entertainment, among other accolades. Her credits at BET include Being Mary Jane, Real Husbands of Hollywood, The New Edition Story and Madiba.

Hill, meanwhile, was promoted to programming president in December 2014, replacing Loretha Jones. Before that, he was president of music programming and specials. He first joined the cable network in 1999 after spending four years as a director of music programming at MTV. Hill reported directly to BET CEO Debra Lee.

Connie Orlando, senior vp specials, music programming and news, is taking over as interim head of programming at BET.

Here is Mashariki's memo to staff:

Hi team,

As many of you know, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December and have been out of the office and on medical leave since my first surgery on February 6. I just had another surgery last week and it is a painful recovery for me. It has also been hard on my children.  

Thank you all for your kind words and support while I have been out. I miss you too!

I heard yesterday that Stephen was leaving BET. I'm concerned that there was a reference to me, as Stephen’s departure is a separate issue from my status at the company.

Here are the facts: I am on medical leave. My job is protected by the Family Medical Leave Act and related statutes (FMLA) and I have a contract in place. Viacom/BET are aware that I am scheduled to return on April 11 and that my medical leave may need to be extended depending on the progress of my recovery.  

Bob Bakish has said our company values should be honesty, empathy and bravery. I agree with this wholeheartedly and our team has embodied this over the two years we have worked together. Without question, including me in Stephen's departure announcement in not in keeping with those values.  

I am continuing to focus on improving my health. I have faith in the Viacom/BET leadership and know they will fix this. I have a long history in Hollywood and am grateful for the outpouring of support I have received across the entire industry during this difficult time.

Our original programming team has accomplished a lot in a short time and the filmmakers and community are excited to work with us again. There is so much more to do.

All my best, Zola