A former CBS News producer is suing the network for discrimination, claiming that the company punished him for speaking out about being the victim of a brutal gay-bashing assault last year.
Richard "Dick" Jefferson is seeking up to $50 million in damages from CBS, CBS News and Linda Mason, who is the network's senior vice president for standards and special projects, and executive producer Patricia Shevlin.
In a suit filed in New York State Supreme Court June 25, Jefferson claims that the network discriminated against him and retaliated against him when he complained about such treatment, accusing CBS of a "deeply rooted bias against homosexuals."
Jefferson, an 18-year veteran of the network earning almost $225,000 a year as senior broadcast producer for the weekend edition of the CBS Evening News, and his colleague, Ryan Smith, who also worked at CBS, were viciously assaulted while on vacation in St. Maarten, an island in the West Indies, last April.
As they left a nightclub, Jefferson was hit in the skull with a tire wrench and Smith was cornered and hit multiple times with the wrench. Due to the severity of their injuries (Jefferson now has a titanium plate in his head), CBS News arranged and paid for both men to be airlifted to Miami for further treatment.
Jefferson, along with gay rights groups, later complained about the slow response of the St. Maarten police to the attack and demanded a full investigation.
"The police response has been no police response, total indifference," Jefferson told ABC's "Good Morning America" last April.
His claims were also reported by MSNBC and The New York Times and other news organizations. Last November, four men were convicted of the attack, and received jail sentences of six months to six years.
When he returned to work, Jefferson claims CBS News President Sean McManus told him to "do what you have to do" regarding his efforts to have the St. Maarten police take a more proactive stance on crimes against tourists.
But the veteran producer says things soon went downhill after he took on the cause to help tourists and people who are victims of violence overseas, claiming CBS took issue with his participation in an "advocacy cause."
Several months later, Jefferson says he was placed on probation after a correspondent complained that he was overly critical of her reporting. Jefferson says he was warned that he would be fired if there was another complaint by a colleague.
During coverage of another news story Aug. 27, 2006, Jefferson acknowledges that several staffers grumbled about working hard in a tense environment, but he says that Shevlin assured him he was not going to be fired, despite the previous warnings.
But soon after helping to produce the network's election coverage in the fall of 2006 — which, according to the lawsuit, earned him a personal thank-you from anchor Katie Couric — Jefferson was fired Nov. 20, 2006.
"I couldn't believe it -- I was almost killed, and I was trying to get the government to do something, and I was being told that it's a gay-rights issue," Jefferson told ABCNEWS.com. "I felt like I was punished for speaking out on this issue," he said.
CBS News released a statement calling the complaint "unequivocally baseless," saying that Jefferson was fired due to "legitimate issues with his performance."
The network claims that it regularly forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation and that "contrary to Mr. Jefferson's claims, CBS News also supported Mr. Jefferson's right to discuss the attack publicly and to seek justice, which he clearly did." The network also says that it spent tens of thousands of dollars to airlift him to safety after the attack, which he suffered "while on a personal vacation.
"We will vigorously and aggressively defend ourselves against Mr. Jefferson's unwarranted complaint and his regrettably vicious and unconscionable attack on Ms. Mason's character," the network said in its statement.
Workplace discrimination lawyers say that fired employees can have a difficult time prevailing in such lawsuits. "The bar is very high in these cases for the person claiming discrimination," says David Raff, the managing partner of Raff & Becker, a law firm in New York City. "They must make a prima facie case [present clear evidence] that what occurred was discrimination. All the employer has to show is a reasonable explanation for his termination."
To compile evidence of discrimination, the plaintiffs in such cases need to do plenty of research. "You need to do a very thorough investigation, talk to witnesses, look at the employee's performance and that of other comparable employees and how they were treated," says Raff. "The difficulty is it's never a nice, neat package."
Smith, who continues to works as a researcher at CBS News' "48 Hours," is not a party to the lawsuit.
Jefferson claims that since the firing he has received phone calls from former CBS legends Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, expressing their full support. A publicist for Rather said that he was on assignment in India and could not be reached for comment. Cronkite's chief of staff said that the broadcast legend has long admired Jefferson, but that since Cronkite was not fully appraised of this particular case, he was not in a position to comment.
Jefferson is currently writing a book about CBS in which he says he will use his experience "to show the transition from the days of Cronkite to the days of Katie." But don't expect a hatchet job. Jefferson says he greatly respects the network.
"I love CBS," he says. "I'm grateful [for the airlifting]. I mean Ryan [Smith] probably owes his life to it. We're talking about what happened afterward."