Can Sinclair Force TV Anchors to Pay Up If They Quit?

Sinclair Broadcast Group 2004 - Getty - H 2017
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For those disgruntled news anchors at Sinclair Broadcast Group's 200 television stations across the U.S., quitting isn't easy. Many are reportedly embarrassed and irate at having to recite "fake news" promos ordered by a management team that's widely viewed as favoring the Donald Trump administration. Some might wish to leave. A look at Sinclair's standard employment agreement, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, illustrates how departing the Sinclair team is hardly a cheap or simple proposition.

According to the contract, a Sinclair employee who voluntarily terminates his or her contract must immediately pay liquidated damages in an amount equal to 40 percent of employee's then annual compensation multiplied by a "percentage equal to the greater of (a) twenty-five percent, or (b) the percentage of the current contract year remaining after such termination."

So, for example, take a news anchor making $200K a year. A stand against these promos by quitting might incur a price tag of $25,000.

It gets worse.

The contract contains a non-compete provision that prohibits the departing Sinclair employee from working at another radio or television station for 180 days after termination. Even if was possible to get another anchor position — Sinclair's proposed acquisition of Tribune stations would shrink the pool of potential jobs — this represents a further barrier.

Of course, some states like California prohibit restrictions hindering employee mobility and there could be good legal arguments why in other states, contractual handcuffs are presumptively illegal.

Kate Gold, an employment lawyer at Drinker Biddle, says that the enforceability of non-competes vary sharply from state to state. As for the liquidated damages provision, Gold says it's highly unusual. "You can't make someone work for you," she says. "You can pursue damages, but to have it pre-determined at 40 percent sounds like a penalty." 

The standard Sinclair employment agreement also contains other eyebrow-raising provisions.

For instance, in a section titled "politics," employees agree that at no time will they "directly or indirectly express ... personal political viewpoints during any broadcast."

Sinclair employees also agree to a morals clause allowing for termination with cause for anything that brings the company into "public disrepute, contempt, scandal, or ridicule, or which shocks, insults, or offends the community, or which casts doubt upon Employee's journalistic fairness or credibility or which reflects unfavorably upon Employee, Employer or the Station, as reasonably determined by Employer."

Then, there is contractual language pertaining to one's personal appearance.

It might not be shocking that Sinclair anchors agree to maintain a "certain physical appearance" and get authorization in writing to "materially alter" from such appearance. Nor surprising that Sinclair is allowed to request reasonable changes to one's "hair color, facial cosmetics, and/or removal of facial hair."

But how about an employee who suffers a disability?

According to the contract, Sinclair is allowed to fire an employee when it's determined the employee has suffered a disability, "including but not limited to any which limits Employee's ability to prevent a pleasant personal appearance and a strong, agreeable voice."

Sinclair is allowed to determine whether the employee is then "unable to perform the essential functions of Employee's job even with reasonable accommodation."

Some of this could lead to legal disputes, but then, there's just one more big problem for Sinclair anchors wishing to quit.

Not only does the contract specify arbitration to adjudicate any dispute arising or relating to the employment agreement, but also allows Sinclair to recover "costs and expenses including, without limitation, reasonable attorney's fees."