CBS Rushes to Get CEO Joe Ianniello Out of Testifying at Sex Bias Trial

Joe Ianniello - Publicity - H 2019
John Filo

Will CBS CEO Joe Ianniello have to take the witness stand at a trial next month and talk about Leslie Moonves and the company's problems on the #MeToo front? On Monday, CBS took steps to avoid that possibility.

On Dec. 9, CBS is set to square off in Florida federal court against Michele Gillen, an Emmy-winning investigative reporter who alleges being fired on the basis of sex and age. She filed her suit more than a year ago in the midst of the Moonves scandal. "The culture of toxic misogyny exposed of late in Hollywood and national media outlets is and has been thriving at CBS," began her complaint.

Gillen alleges being subject to a bullying and hostile work environment. She says that CBS executives and her WFOR-TV superiors "hatched a scheme for her firing" that included giving her a story reporting quota without the resources to succeed.

CBS denies her version of events. Instead, the broadcaster asserts it had a legitimate reason not to renew her contract since she was "the highest paid and least productive of its investigative reporters."

As the trial quickly approaches, CBS aims to narrow the focus of the proceeding. In particular, the defendant has made two pressing motions.

The first is to stop a trial subpoena for Ianniello, which Gillen has threatened to serve at the CBS chief's home.

In court papers, Gillen points to the company-wide message that Ianniello sent CBS staffers in September 2018. At the time of Ianniello's memo, CBS had hired outside law firms to look into allegations against Moonves and examine the company's work culture. "[T]here is no reason to wait on reassessing our culture," Ianniello wrote to employees.

Gillen frames the communication as evidence of how CBS handled hostile work environment claims, but the company counters that it doesn't count as "direct contact" between Ianniello and Gillen's superiors and that Ianniello possesses no unique or superior knowledge about information pertinent to the case.

"Mr. Ianniello’s company-wide email has no relevance to this case, as it was sent almost two years after Ms. Gillen’s employment with WFOR ended and, therefore, does not apply to her in any way," states a CBS motion for a protective order. 

CBS also brings a motion to preclude any evidence or testimony about allegations of sexual misconduct made against Moonves, the independent investigation by CBS' board of directors in 2018, and "culture issues" at the company.

"[W]hile Plaintiff acknowledges the prejudicial nature of the specific term '#MeToo,' and agrees not to use it at trial, Plaintiff’s counsel advised during the parties’ November 15, 2019 telephonic meet and confer that Plaintiff still intends to introduce testimony and evidence relating to allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Moonves and others and to encourage jurors to tie those unrelated allegations to alleged mistreatment by Plaintiff at WFOR," writes CBS' lawyers. "This evidence should be excluded because allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Moonves and others are completely irrelevant to Plaintiff’s gender and age discrimination claims involving her employment in Miami, Florida at WFOR, and because the prejudicial harm clearly outweighs the nonexistent probative value."

CBS also argues that "culture issues" at the corporation constitute "improper character evidence" that must be excluded from trial. The company warns the judge that Gillen intends to introduce evidence of unrelated lawsuits, EEOC claims, administrative charges and settlements made by other CBS employees.

"Allowing Plaintiff to introduce this evidence would necessitate 'mini-trials' on matters that are far removed from Plaintiff’s claims in this case," continues CBS. "Defendants would be unduly prejudiced in this regard as these other 'me too' witnesses and evidence would confuse the jury, confuse the issues and otherwise waste the time of the jury, the parties, and the Court."