Judge Advances Discrimination Lawsuit Arising from Bill Maher's N-Word Use

ATTN:, the Los Angeles-based news site focused on raising social consciousness for millennials, finds itself in trouble over an editor fired after leading the charge against Bill Maher's use of the N-word on his HBO series. A Los Angeles Superior Court has ruled that Shonitria Anthony has a probability of prevailing on her discrimination and retaliation claims. The upstart news company is now heading to a California appeals court for further review.

Anthony filed her lawsuit in March against ATTN: and its top executives. Maher is an investor in the startup, along with Jimmy Iovine and Ryan Seacrest. The company has raised nearly $25 million in funding, and enjoyed videos earning tens of millions of views. ATTN: also partnered with ABC News earlier this year on an hourlong documentary about Parkland, Florida shooting survivors.

According to the complaint, after Maher referred to himself as a "house n—er" on the June 2, 2017 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Anthony organized her African-American co-workers in response to the racial slur. She says she asked the company to hold a meeting to discuss Maher's comments. Subsequently, Anthony says she was subjected to a series of adverse employment actions, culminating in her termination.

The defendant insists that Anthony's firing had nothing to do with her being vocal around the workplace. ATTN: says she was let go as part of a business strategy shift to video. In an anti-SLAPP motion, the defendant aimed to stop the lawsuit as a frivolous one aimed at its First Amendment activity and unlikely to succeed since it alleges having a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for dismissing her.

L.A. Superior Court Judge Steven Kleifield does acknowledge that this case arises out of the First Amendment activity of the news site.

"Defendants argue that, for a news organization, the selection of content editors is an act in furtherance of free speech, and therefore actions which challenge the firing of those editors are within the class of suits protected by the anti-SLAPP law," writes Kleifeld in his ruling. "The Court agrees."

Having satisfied the first prong of California's law intended to give breathing room to the First Amendment, the analysis then shifts to whether Anthony has a probability of prevailing. In other words, even though the case is at an early juncture, the judge looks at the merits of the claims from her declaration and will only allow the case to proceed if the plaintiff can establish a good chance of success.

"It is not disputed that Plaintiff is African-American, was qualified for her position and suffered an adverse employment action," continues Kleifield. "Plaintiff's declaration details how she believes she was singled out after raising issues of race in her workplace. That is a sufficient 'other circumstance' to suggest a discriminatory motive. Plaintiff has stated and supported a prima facie case for race discrimination."

Since Anthony has established such a prima facie case, it's the employer's burden to establish the legitimacy of its action.

The judge notes how ATTN is disputing a "causal link" between Anthony rallying her co-workers over Maher's comment and her firing. It's not enough. After reviewing allegations and evidence how she suffered setbacks at the office almost immediately after engaging in protests, the judge concludes that Anthony has "submitted sufficient evidence that the conduct was engaged in with a discriminatory intent." 

On Friday, ATTN took advantage of the immediate interlocutory appeal allowed by a denial of a SLAPP motion. The company filed a notice of an appeal.