Warner Bros. Suffers Setback in 'Big Bang Theory' Discrimination Suit

A judge rules that a former assistant director's claims are not preempted by federal labor law.
Courtesy of CBS

Christopher Klausen, who worked for seven years as an assistant director on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, has scored the first round in a lawsuit that claims his termination by Warner Bros. constituted age discrimination.

In his lawsuit filed last August, Klausen alleges that the actors on the show began to ostracize him after he turned 50 years old. He says that in the sixth season, his job responsibilities, which included preparing actors for scenes, were reassigned to two younger and less experienced employees. Klausen says he was told the other directors "related to the actors better." His responsibilities shifted to working with the show's extras, and finally, after the eighth season, his contract wasn't renewed, effectively terminating his employment.

In response to the lawsuit, Warner Bros. had it removed from Los Angeles Superior Court to California federal court. Klausen made a motion to have it returned — and this set up dueling arguments over whether the plaintiff's state-based claims were preempted by federal labor law. 

To prevail on his discrimination claim, Klausen will have to establish that he suffered an adverse employment action at a time that he was satisfactorily performing his job.

However, Warner Bros. has attempted to assert the defense that the complaint is barred under Section 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act because his employment was governed by two collective bargaining agreements that spell out the circumstances under which an employer may hire additional assistant directors, the length of employment for these positions and when an employee may be "upgraded" or "downgraded" from these positions.

Warners argued that the case belonged in federal court because an interpretation of the collective bargaining agreements was needed. Thus, the forum controversy gave a judge an early opportunity to address how deals between the Directors Guild and producers factor into a discrimination case.

In an order to remand the case on Monday, U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder rejects Warners' contentions and even makes a note that suggests the case won't turn on a guild agreement.

She writes that an analysis of Klausen's claims by a judge and jury "is not dependent on how various terms or duties are defined under the CBA. Instead it will depend on evidence regarding plaintiff’s experience as an employee on The Big Bang Theory, and how defendant’s altered plaintiff’s role on the show over time. Based on this evidence, the fact finder will then determine whether under FEHA [California's Fair Employment and Housing Act] — and not the CBA — plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action."

The judge goes even further by adding that the discrimination claim won't depend on whether he was actually fired.

"Unlike claims for wrongful termination, under FEHA the decision not to renew an employment contract can constitute an adverse employment action," writes Snyder, cutting off a separate line of argument made by Warners' attorneys.

Here's the full ruling.

The development perhaps doesn't put an end to Warners' defense that a collective bargaining agreement dominates the dispute — the judge writes elsewhere that "a court may have cause to refer to the CBA in resolving plaintiff’s claims" — but it certainly constitutes a bad sign for this line of argument. 

Despite the setback, the studio has 35 other defenses being asserted, including good cause not to renew Klausen's contract and legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for doing so. The defendant also has asserted that Klausen's sole remedy is claiming workers' compensation. Warners also is arguing that it has free speech rights and that punitive damages would constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.