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Montel Meets the ADA: CBS’ Defense Not Ready For Prime Time

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in Case In Point,Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

I just don’t get it. What don’t employers understand about the laws that protect disabled workers? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been in place for almost 20 years and was expanded this year to create even broader protections. If employees know their rights, and courts know them too, why don’t employers? Let’s see how a talk show ended up in the middle of a big courtroom drama …

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Case in Point: Erin Primmer began working as a television producer for CBS’s Montel Williams Show in 2005. She was responsible for pitching new show ideas, writing show scripts and briefing both guests and Williams prior to the show.

Primmer never heard any major critiques of her performance from supervising producers. In fact, an executive producer wrote that Primmer’s 2005 performance was so good that her “prospects for continued employment and advancement are excellent.” Subsequently, her contract was renewed for another season and she was given a raise.

But in March 2007, Primmer had emergency surgery for a brain aneurysm. She didn’t return to work for the rest of the show’s season.

A couple months later, her doctor gave her a clean bill of health to go back to work. But prior to the start of the next season, Primmer met with her supervising producer. They discussed her aneurysm. During the meeting, Primmer was told her contract was not being renewed allegedly because the show “needed someone at the top of their game” and someone who could “handle the pressure.”

Primmer sued CBS under the ADA, claiming she was fired because she was “regarded as” being disabled due to her aneurysm. CBS tried to get the case dismissed, arguing that Montel had raised concerns about her performance in early 2007, so the termination decision had been made two months before her aneurysm. (Primmer v. CBS Studios Inc., S.D.N.Y, 9/8/09)

What happened next and what lessons can be learned?

The court rejected CBS’s explanation and denied its summary judgment appeal. It sent the case to trial, saying the supervisor’s comments about needing someone “at the top of their game” would “certainly allow a reasonable jury to decide that the decision not to renew Primmer's contract was motivated, at least in part, on her perceived disability, especially given the close proximity between Primmer's return [following the aneurysm] and her meeting” with the supervising producer. 

The court noted that CBS’s lack of communication with Primmer about her performance was another factor that made the termination suspicious. It noted that Primmer, “was never advised [prior to her aneurysm] that her performance was unsatisfactory or that her continued employment was in jeopardy.”

It looks like a jury will be viewing this shocking episode of the Montel Williams Show.

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

1. Produce reality shows. Deliver and document performance in real time. Montel said he was going to fire Primmer in January. He should have. Because doing it right after she returned from medical leave created a whole new drama. 

2. Monitor what you watch. If you perceive an employee as disabled, you can get sued for discrimination. Make sure you’re not so biased that you can’t see straight.

3.    Fix your antenna. Get the right signals. If employees give you notice that they are exercising their rights under the ADA, then back off from taking employment action against them—for a while.

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