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Vice Media sued by former employee alleging systemic pay discrimination against women

A former employee of Vice Media filed a lawsuit Tuesday accusing the company of discrimination against female employees

A woman who formerly worked for Vice Media has alleged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the company discriminates against female employees, systemically and intentionally paying them less than their male counterparts.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action certification, was filed by Elizabeth Rose, who worked at the millennial-focused media company in New York and Los Angeles from 2014 to 2016, serving as a channel manager and project manager. Vice Media operates the Viceland cable channel and produces two news programs for HBO, among other projects.

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Filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the complaint alleges that Rose, as part of her job, received internal memos that showed the salaries of about 35 Vice Media employees, revealing a pay disparity in which females "made far less than male employees for the same or substantially similar work."

According to the lawsuit, Rose learned that a male subordinate — whom she hired — made about $25,000 more per year than her. The man was eventually promoted to be her supervisor. A male executive told Rose that her former subordinate was a "good personality fit" for male clients, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges Vice Media violated equal pay laws in New York and California, as well as the federal Equal Pay Act. Depending on the circumstances, women who were employed by the company within the last six years could be a member of one of three proposed classes, which in total could include more than 700 women, according to the lawsuit.

Vice Media, headquartered in Brooklyn, said in a statement that it was reviewing the complaint. "As a company, we have made a significant commitment to a respectful, inclusive and equal workplace," a company spokesperson said. "That commitment includes a pay parity audit started last year, a goal of 50/50 female/male representation at every level by 2020, and the formation of a Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board."

Originating from the Montreal-based alternative magazine Vice, the company was valued at $5.7 billion last year, co-founder and Chief Executive Shane Smith said in a June interview.

Vice Media was the subject of a Dec. 23 report by the New York Times that contained allegations of sexual misconduct at the company. Soon thereafter, it suspended two male executives — its president, Andrew Creighton, and chief digital officer, Mike Germano — who were accused of misbehavior in the report. Germano was fired in late January.

On the same day the Times published its report, Smith and Vice Media co-founder Suroosh Alvi posted a message to Vice.com that acknowledged problems within their operation. "Listening to our employees over the past year, the truth is inescapable: from the top down, we have failed as a company to create a safe and inclusive workplace where everyone, especially women, can feel respected and thrive," the note said.

Rose's complaint also alleges that after she viewed the internal document that revealed pay disparities between men and women, she spoke with other female colleagues and learned that they too were aware that they were being paid less than their male counterparts. Rose is seeking for herself — and the members of the potential classes — compensatory damages, adjusted wages to compensate for the allegedly discriminatory pay policy and an end to the company's allegedly discriminatory practices.

Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, the California Fair Pay Act — one of three laws Vice Media is alleged to have violated — is among the toughest pay equity statutes in the country. The act strengthened previous equal pay laws in part by requiring that employees get the same pay for doing "substantially similar" work irrespective of job title. In practice, the state's prior law had been interpreted by courts to only require male and female workers with the same title to get equal pay.

California has seen a rise in lawsuits alleging equal pay violations since the new statute went into effect, said Lisa Klerman, an employment law mediator.

"It is anecdotal from my own mediation practice in employment law, but it has been my experience that I am seeing a greater number of these cases," said Klerman, who also is a professor at the USC Gould School of Law. "It is now easier to bring these types of cases."

Michael Morrison, Rose's attorney, said that a focus on pay disparity could be "the next step in the #MeToo movement."

"Not enough attention in the #MeToo movement has been drawn to pay disparities," said Morrison of law firm Alexander Krakow + Glick. "You can't ignore that pay disparities based on gender have a profound effect on women. To not get the same amount of money as your male colleague, based on your sex, what is more discriminatory than that?"

Vice Media isn't the only Hollywood company to be hit with a potential class-action case amid a wider reckoning in the entertainment and media industries over issues of discrimination and misconduct. In December, the disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein and his namesake company were sued by six women who alleged that a massive scheme facilitated his predatory behavior.

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A new-media powerhouse, Vice Media counts the Walt Disney Co., A&E Networks and 21st Century Fox as investors.

Speaking at the Code Media conference in Huntington Beach on Tuesday, A&E Networks Chief Executive Nancy Dubuc, whose company bought 10% of Vice Media in 2014, said that the company is "not trying to hide from" issues raised in the New York Times report. She was not asked about Rose's lawsuit.

Dubuc praised Vice Media for moving quickly to correct some of its issues. "I don't think they're alone," she said. "The bro-y culture is pervasive in our business."

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

UPDATES:

3:26 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from a legal expert.

1:33 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Vice Media.

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This article was originally published at 10 a.m.

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