The jury in a sexual harassment suit brought by a former high-ranking New York Knicks basketball team executive recently awarded her more than $11 million in punitive damages. They did so after hearing testimony during what the New York Times called a “sordid four-week trial”. Officials of Madison Square Garden (which owns the Knicks) said they would appeal the verdict. However, even if they were to win on appeal (which one University of Richmond Law School professor said was unlikely), the case still exposed the organization and its managers to a great deal of unfavorable publicity.
The federal suit pitted Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks’ senior vice president of marketing and business operations (and former Northwestern University basketball star), against the team’s owner, Madison Square Garden, and its president, Isiah Thomas. The suit charged them with sex discrimination and retaliation. Ms. Browne Sanders accused Mr. Thomas of verbally abusing and sexually harassing her over a 2-year period. She said the Garden fired her about a month after she complained to top management about the harassment. My pleas and complaints about Mr. Thomas’ illegal and offensive actions fell on deaf ears,” she said. At the trial, the Garden cited numerous explanations for the dismissal, saying she had “failed to fulfill professional responsibilities. ” At a news conference, Browne Sanders said that Thomas “refused to stop his demeaning and repulsive behavior and the Garden refused to intercede. ” For his part, Mr. Thomas vigorously insisted he was innocent, and said “I will not allow her or anybody, man or woman, to use me as a pawn for their financial gain. According to one report of the trial, her claims of harassment and verbal abuse had little corroboration from witnesses, but neither did the Garden’s claim that her performance had been subpar. After the jury decision came in, Browne Sanders’ lawyer said, “This [decision] confirms what we’ve been saying all along, that [Browne Sanders] was sexually abused and fired for complaining about it. ” The Garden’s statement said, in part, “We look forward to presenting our arguments to an appeals court and believe they will agree that no sexual harassment took place. Questions 1. Do you think Ms. Browne Sanders had the basis for a sexual harassment suit? Why? 2. From what you know of this case, do you think the jury arrived at the correct decision? If not, why not? 3. Based on the few facts provided, what steps could Garden management have taken to protect the organization from liability in this matter? 4. Aside from the appeal, what would you do now if you were the Garden’s top management? 5. “The allegations against Madison Square Garden in this case raise ethical questions with regard to employer’s actions. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?
Sources: “Jury Awards $11. 6 Million to Former Executive of Pro Basketball Team in Harassment Case,” BNA Bulletin to Management, October 9, 2007, p. 323; Richard Sandomir, “Jury Finds Knicks and Coach Harassed a Former Executive,” The New York Times, www. nytimes. com/2007/10/03/sports/basketball/03garden. html? em&ex=1191556800&en=41d47437f805290d&ei=5087%0A, accessed November 31, 2007; “Thomas Defiant in Face of Harassment Claims,” espn. com, accessed November 31, 2007.