Jury Rules Thomas Harassed Woman

Isiah Thomas
New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas leaves the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan. (Louis Lanzano - AP Photo)
By Robin Shulman Michael Lee
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

NEW YORK, Oct. 2 -- A federal jury in Manhattan Tuesday found that Isiah Thomas, the New York Knicks' coach and president of basketball operations, had sexually harassed former team executive Anucha Browne Sanders and that Madison Square Garden improperly fired her for complaining about it.

The jury later ruled that Browne Sanders is entitled to $11.6 million in punitive damages from the Garden and James L. Dolan, chairman of Cablevision, parent company of the Garden and the Knicks. Browne Sanders was awarded $6 million for the hostile work environment allowed by the Garden and $5.6 million for retaliation against her, with Dolan's share being $3 million.

U.S. District Judge Gerard E. Lynch will later decide on compensatory damages for Browne Sanders, such as missed salary and other benefits.

"What I did here, I did for every working woman in America," Browne Sanders said outside the court after the verdict. She added that she pursued the case "for everyone who doesn't have the means to do what I was able to do."

Thomas, who missed the first day of the Knicks' training camp in Charleston, S.C., to hear the verdicts, was found to have subjected Browne Sanders to unwanted advances and verbal insults. He had a partial victory, though, when jurors were unable to determine if he should pay punitive damages. The judge declared a mistrial on that question.

Thomas and the Garden both plan to appeal the verdicts.

In a statement released by the Knicks, Thomas said: "I am extremely disappointed that the jury failed to see the truth in this case -- that I never sexually harassed Anita Browne Sanders and had nothing to do with her being fired. I didn't do what she said I did. I am innocent. I remain confident in the truth -- and am committed to appealing this decision and clearing my good name."

Officials from the Garden also issued a statement after the verdicts. "We believe that the jury's decision was incorrect and plan to vigorously appeal the verdict," it said. "We look forward to presenting our arguments to an appeals court, and believe they will agree that no sexual harassment took place and MSG acted properly. The normal operations of Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks will continue unabated and we will have no further comment until the appeals process has concluded."

Browne Sanders, 44, was fired in February 2006 from her $260,000-a-year job as the Knicks' vice president for marketing and business operations. Her contention was that the firing was in retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint. The Garden argued that she was fired for incompetence and interfering with the organization's investigation of the complaint.

The case painted an ugly behind-the-scenes picture of the Knicks franchise, which has experienced some difficult times in recent years. The team hasn't had a winning record since 2001 despite having the league's highest payroll. During the trial, Thomas was alleged to have routinely used derogatory terms toward Browne Sanders. He also sparked outrage when he said it was less offensive for black men than white men to call black women a "bitch."

In testimony during the Thomas trial, Knicks guard Stephon Marbury also admitted to having sex with an intern in his truck.

The verdicts may not result in much more than a finger wag from NBA Commissioner David Stern. Stern has warned Dolan about past public problems -- such as Knicks coach Larry Brown's firing and buyout last year -- and is upset that this latest issue reached an embarrassing conclusion. But when asked if Stern would further punish the Knicks or Dolan, league spokesman Tim Frank said, "Our policies do not encompass civil litigation."

Before jurors determined the punitive damages, the incomes of Dolan and the Garden were shown on a screen in the courtroom, and the judge instructed jurors to determine monetary amounts sufficient to serve as deterrents. Browne Sanders originally sued for $9.6 million.

After the verdict, Steve Mills, a Garden executive who had supervised Browne Sanders, pushed through a crowd of reporters surrounded by bodyguards and refused to comment. Browne Sanders, wearing a light blue jacket, with her hair swept back off her face, gathered after the verdict with family, her legal team and other supporters outside the courtroom in a circle, held hands and bowed her head in prayer.

"From the first day Anita Browne Sanders came into our office, she told us the truth," her lawyer, Kevin Mintzer, said. "Everything she said in this courtroom has been validated."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company