Cecily Coleman, former head of ABC's voter participation project, was fired from her $60,000-a-year job after she complained to the personnel director that she was being sexually harassed by her immediate supervisor. Coleman sued the network for $15 million claiming sexual harassment and sex discrimination and last week, after a jury was selected but before any trial testimony began, ABC and Coleman reached an out-of-court settlement.
The terms: ABC would pay her nearly $500,000, but all the parties to the suit and the agreement would keep their mouths shut. An ABC lawyer in New York issued a statement saying "no admission of liability may be construed" from the settlement (mind you, of course, no one was supposed to know just how fat the settlement was), and saying that the agreement "marks an amicable conclusion of the case."
Well, that's not quite what happened.
Shocking, I know. But it's a well-known fact about this human enterprise we call living that when two people know a secret, it ain't a secret anymore. That's something kids learn at their mother's knee. In the Coleman-ABC case, there were a great many more than two people who knew what a hefty settlement she'd received. There were at least three lawyers for ABC, four lawyers for Coleman, the various defendants in the suit, court clerks, and again, human nature being what it is, a whole collection of spouses, best friends and supporters, parents, grandparents, children, and perhaps even a favorite niece or two.
Secret out-of-court settlements in civil suits are nothing unusual. They are reached to avoid the expense of a long trial; they are reached to avoid nuisance suits, and they are reached when lawyers tell defendants this one looks bad, there's going to be a lot of bad publicity and you may end up paying a fortune: Let's cut our losses and run. And the plaintiff, who also wants to avoid the expense of a long trial, not to mention having his or her personal and professional life dragged through the mud, will agree. It is also not at all unusual to see news accounts that say the terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but so and so "reportedly agreed to settle for $350,000" or whatever. And that's usually the end of the story.
Not so, in this case.
ABC and its Washington lawyer Stuart M. Gerson went on a witch hunt in a federal courtroom the likes of which this town hasn't seen since the Pentagon papers. Gerson was in U.S. District Court Judge Barrington Parker's chambers the day the story appeared demanding a closed hearing to find out who leaked the sum to The Washington Post so he or she could be sanctioned. A story that would have come and gone in a day dragged on, and on, with the $500,000 figure repeated in print, day after day. Various players in this drama were called to the stand to find out if they were the leakers, lawyers for Coleman turned on each other and ABC tried to get her check held up.
Gerson at one point told a Post reporter the hearings were "a search for the truth." In point of fact they were a great waste of time and of taxpayers' money, and made ABC look utterly foolish: Here was a big-time news organization going on a witch hunt to find out the source of another news organization's scoop. The hypocrisy of it was astounding.
The whole point of big settlements in these kinds of cases -- besides the obvious one of remedying a wrong against the people involved -- is to impress on employers that such practices are against the law and that if they allow them, it's going to cost them a bundle. That point was made in a suit settled by CBS at the end of June in which it agreed to pay $250,000 to an executive who said she had been assaulted by a CBS radio executive after a sales dinner. That, far more than any moral suasion, is what is going to clean up these practices in the work place.
The pressures on judges to clear dockets are such that almost any resolution that avoids a lengthy trial seems desirable. Thus, it is not very surprising that a judge, presented with a secret settlement, would go along with the terms -- even if a larger public good, namely showing that there are teeth in laws banning sexual harassment and sex discrimination, is ill served.
If these cases are ever to have a broad impact on the work place, however, the high cost to employers through settlements or suits is going to have to be made public. Because the amount of the ABC-Coleman settlement became public, working women can feel they have $500,000 worth of protection that they didn't have before. It's information they and their employers deserve to know.