Female employees file class-action discrimination suit against Black News Channel

BNC hosts Aisha Mills and Del Walters, BNC president and chief executive Princell Hair, and "Prime" host Charles Blow.
Black News Channel hosts Aisha Mills, from left, and Del Walters, BNC President and Chief Executive Princell Hair and “BNC Prime” host Charles Blow on set. Mills is not among the women who have filed a lawsuit against the outlet.
(Black News Channel)

Black News Channel, the cable and streaming service aimed at Black audiences, has been hit with a gender discrimination lawsuit by 13 current and former women employees who claim they were paid substantially less than male counterparts and disciplined for being too aggressive in the workplace.

The Tallahassee, Fla.-based outfit, which has about 300 employees, is also accused of terminating several of the women last month in retaliation for their complaining to the company’s human resources department.

The amended lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Cook County, Ill., is an expansion of a suit filed on behalf of two former employees — Ashley Flete and Claudia Jean — last summer. It seeks class-action status and punitive damages of at least $1 million plus attorneys fees.

Several plaintiffs in the suit state they were paid less than their male counterparts. In one case, a female supervisor was allegedly paid less than the men who reported to her.

BNC, a privately held company with the majority stake held by Shad Khan, owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, denied the allegations raised in the suit.

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“We have investigated each of these claims thoroughly and will soon be filing our motion to dismiss [the lawsuit] based on several grounds,” the company said in a statement. “In addition, we are pursuing multiple actions related to the plaintiffs’ counsel’s pattern of ethical misconduct and are looking forward to our day in court.”

BNC is seeking to dismiss the case, partly on grounds that the company does not have any significant presence in Illinois, where the suit was filed.

A hearing is scheduled for Monday on whether the amendment to the original suit will be allowed.

The widening litigation creates a perception problem for BNC, which is attempting to get a foothold in an increasingly challenging TV news business. The company is looking for a strategic partner in order to expand.

BNC has been on the air since late 2019 and reaches more than 50 million cable and satellite homes. Its on-air hosts include Charles Blow, the New York Times opinion writer, and prominent progressive commentators Marc Lamont Hill and Aisha Mills.

The complaint alleges a pattern of BNC managers complaining about behavior by female employees who they believe behaved too aggressively or were “insufficiently docile.”

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The complaint also says the BNC employee handbooks for 2019 and 2020 did not offer a confidential mechanism or policy to report sexual harassment, gender discrimination or pay disparities. Employees were told to raise workplace issues with their supervisors, even if the supervisors were the subjects of their complaints.

Tim Buckman, a spokesperson for BNC, said such a mechanism was introduced at the company in November.

According to the suit, Flete signed a two-year contract as an on-air journalist in June 2020 at an annual salary of $42,000, and was promoted to host of the morning show. The complaint said she was paid significantly less than male employees with similar experience.

Several months into the job, she was getting berated by a producer for being “insufficiently feminine,” according to the complaint.

Flete raised the issue with the human resources department at BNC and was terminated shortly afterward, with 18 months left on her contract, the lawsuit states.

Flete was told by BNC that the network no longer needed a morning show host. However, a new host was hired six weeks later. Flete claims she was dismissed in retaliation for her complaint to human resources.

Jean, a talent producer at BNC, said in the complaint that staff members laughed at her in meetings for “mannerisms they deemed insufficiently feminine and too aggressive.” She was also allegedly told by a supervisor that she had “aggressive” masculine tendencies.

Jean said she received word of her termination during a meeting with human resources about her supervisor’s comments.

Another former BNC employee, Felicia Burton, said she was paid significantly less than several of the white men who reported to her. She raised the issue of inappropriate behavior by male employees with human resources.

Burton, who served as a technical production manager for BNC, said she was told by HR that it was inappropriate to report the men’s conduct because it was “in the past.”

Burton said she was stripped of her position and duties while out on medical leave and was terminated in late December. She believes it was in retaliation for her complaints.

Lauren Coleman, who worked as a technical director for BNC for nearly two years, said she was paid less than men in similar positions. She said her male supervisor told another employee that only men should be directors.

Similar issues were raised by the other plaintiffs in the suit, including six women who are not identified by name. One current employee said she was demoted because her supervisor believed she was “insufficiently feminine,” and had her pay cut.