On Thursday, October 25, a former PBS writer filed a lawsuit accusing the network of unlawfully firing him because of sex and sex stereotyping after he made an “innocuous remark” about Meghan Markle.
The plaintiff, Hugh Heckman, alleges that he was fired as a result of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On November 25, 2017, Heckman was at work, looking at a picture of the Duchess with another employee while working on a story regarding the Royal Family of Britain. He said “not bad” to this co-worker. At that point, a female employee, Corinne Segal, who was sitting 20 feet away and could not see the picture being shown to Heckman, criticized Heckman for the comment and stated that he was not abiding by the sexual harassment training the employees had recently attended. Heckman immediately explained that he did not intend any sexually harassing remark and that he meant to convey that “the Duchess possessed charm and beauty and was a suitable match for her fiance.”
Corinne Segal then complained to Scott Davis, the Executive Producer, about Heckman’s “not bad” comment. On November 27, 2017, just two days after the incident, Davis called Heckman and told him that he was fired because of the comment. The defendants did not conduct an investigation of the facts.
Heckman informed and complained to the defendants that Segal and another female employee had stated that Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau is “hot” in the presence of witnesses. The defendants took no action on this complaint.
Heckman alleges that the defendants enforced their policies regarding sexual harassment in a manner that was discriminatory, “specifically that they dismissed a male employee with no investigation within two days, but took no action when placed on notice of a similar remark by female employees in the presence of witnesses.”
The complaint provides a strong prima facie case. To make a prima facie case of discrimination, the courts apply the McDonnell Douglas test. The plaintiff must show that he: (1) belongs to a protected case; (2) was qualified for the job; and (3) was subjected to an adverse employment action; and that (4) the employer gave better treatment to a similarly-situated person outside the plaintiff’s protected class.
Heckman has argued all four prongs. He asserts that “he performed his job duties well and received numerous compliments and accolades from managers and co-workers.” He was fired, which courts consider to be an “adverse employment action.” Heckman claims to have informed the defendants that his coworker Segal and another female employee made a sexual comment about a man, and that no action was taken against the two women. If the defendants cannot offer a legitimate reason for firing Heckman, the presumption remains and Heckman will have proven a case of discrimination.
Ashley Park is an Entertainment Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current first year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2021).