Fox News may have just opened itself up to more lawsuits with Roger Ailes’ resignation
Roger Ailes has stepped down as chairman of Fox News, but the fallout from his controversial tenure won’t end anytime soon.
The swift action to oust Ailes may bring a speedy conclusion to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former anchor Gretchen Carlson against the former Fox News chairman.
But the move could embolden other women to file complaints against Ailes and expose Fox News to lawsuits over the conduct of the once powerful TV executive, legal experts said.
Employment law experts say a settlement or resolution in the Carlson case appears more likely since Ailes resigned last Thursday, although he did so without acknowledging the claims against him.
His departure came after an internal investigation by Fox News parent 21st Century Fox turned up other instances of harassment by Ailes from other employees, including star anchor Megyn Kelly. Just two weeks earlier, Carlson had filed a lawsuit against Ailes alleging that he had sabotaged her career in retaliation for rebuffing his sexual advances and complaining about a hostile work environment.
You don’t oust a person in that kind of a position based only on unproven allegations in a lawsuit.
— Joanna Grossman, professor of discrimination and gender law at SMU Dedman School of Law
Ailes has denied all of the allegations. However, his resignation and rapid action by 21st Century Fox are seen as helpful to Carlson’s case — and a message to other women in the company that it recognizes that a sexual harassment problem existed.
“Fox is more or less conceding that at least some of what she says is true because you don’t oust a person in that kind of a position based only on unproven allegations in a lawsuit unless you have pretty good reason to think those allegations are true and you don’t want to keep dragging it out,” said Joanna Grossman, professor of discrimination and gender law at SMU Dedman School of Law. “I would expect this would make it more likely that this case would settle.”
Settlement of the lawsuit isn’t the only cloud hanging over Fox. The bigger question is who will succeed Ailes permanently — he was replaced last week by News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch — and whether the network will continue its combative brand of TV journalism that has built up such a loyal following among viewers.
But the immediate problem is the fallout of Ailes’ alleged misconduct. The ouster of Ailes, who left with a $40-million parachute, is also seen as a defensive measure on the part of 21st Century Fox. Fox reduces its potential liability because the network can an argue that it took swift action to remove Ailes when it learned of the alleged misconduct, said Marcia McCormick, professor of employment at St. Louis University.
Yet other women may feel encouraged to sue Fox News — not just Ailes — on the grounds that their careers also suffered because of discrimination at the network. Employment law in New York state puts a three-year statute of limitation on sexual harassment claims.
“It does validate the claims in some way and I think that that can potentially be a motivating factor for other women who have a similar story to come forward because they think they’ll be believed,” said Kate Gold, a partner in the labor employment group at Los Angeles-based Drinker Biddle & Reath.
Much will hinge on whether Fox management knew Ailes was harassing women, McCormick added. “It’s possible they would be liable if anything bad happens for the women saying no—‘Sleep with me or you don’t get a promotion, sleep with me or you don’t get a raise,’ “ McCormick said. “But if it’s just a hostile environment that was created with sexually charged language, but no employment consequences for their resistance, it’s more murky.”
A spokesperson for Carlson’s attorneys said Monday that they are proceeding with their case against Ailes and are not commenting on the impact his resignation might have. Carlson is seeking unspecified compensatory damages, including lost compensation and damage to her career (Ailes would be indemnified by his former employer from paying damages).
Aside from the lawsuit, Carlson may already have won in the court of public opinion.
“Whether she ever gets a penny out of this or not, gets her job back or has any remedy in the public eye -- she won,” Grossman said. “She came forward, she was vindicated, the network dismissed him and sent the message to other people that they would take swift action if they knew about a problem.”
Although they did not comment on the status of their case, Carlson’s attorneys Nancy Erika Smith and Martin Hyman said Ailes’ resignation highlights the issue of harassment in the workplace.
“Within just two weeks of her filing a lawsuit against Roger Ailes, Gretchen Carlson’s extraordinary courage has caused a seismic shift in the media world,” they said. “We hope that all businesses now understand that women will no longer tolerate sexual harassment and reputable companies will no longer shield those who abuse women. We thank all the brave women who spoke out about this issue.”
Kellie Boyle is among the 20 women who contacted Carlson’s attorneys to relate past alleged incidents of sexual harassment involving Ailes.
Boyle never worked for Ailes. But since 1989, the Virginia-based communications executive had been telling friends about an encounter she had with Ailes that year after a dinner meeting in Washington, D.C., in which he allegedly suggested that having sex with him would advance her career. At the time, Ailes had finished serving as a strategist for the successful 1988 campaign for President George H.W. Bush and was considered one of the most powerful men in Republican politics.
After she rejected Ailes’ advances, Boyle said a business opportunity she secured with the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee disappeared. She shared the experience with Carlson’s attorneys and then told her story to New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman.
After the news of Ailes’ resignation, Boyle said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that she was not seeking revenge for what happened to her. She said she simply wanted Carlson’s claims to be taken seriously and to encourage other women to call out workplace harassment.
“Not only do I feel this will help women speak out, but I think it will discourage other perpetrators of sexual harassment,” she said. “The deterrent is as big as the empowerment.”
Boyle said she kept quiet about the incident until recently because she feared retribution.
“My husband and I had started a new business and Roger Ailes was an even more powerful person,” she said.
Boyle said she had no anger over what allegedly happened 27 years ago.
“I had to get past it,” she said. “I had to go on with my life.”
Ailes has denied Boyle’s story and all other published accounts of women who said he sexually harassed them.
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