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Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez files suit against the newspaper and top editors, alleging discrimination over past coverage ban

The Washington Post headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez has filed a lawsuit against the newspaper and several current and former top editors, alleging that she has been discriminated and retaliated against.

Sonmez, who works on The Post’s political breaking news team, said that she suffered adverse personal and professional consequences after editors twice barred her from covering stories related to sexual harassment and assault — such as the allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh — because they believed she had a conflict of interest as a sexual assault survivor who had spoken publicly about the issue.

The Post reversed a second iteration of the ban in late March, after Sonmez’s internal protestations — she told editors that it was “humiliating” — and public criticism of the policy. Sonmez had also briefly been placed on administrative leave in January 2020 after tweeting in the hours after NBA star Kobe Bryant’s death about the criminal charges of rape, later dropped, he had faced years earlier.

The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in District of Columbia Superior Court, alleges a violation of the city’s Human Rights Act, claiming that she has been “chastised, silenced and subjected to humiliation on a repeated basis for being a victim of sexual assault, for defending herself against false accusations and for her opposition to Defendants’ attempts to depict her as unworthy or unable to perform the duties of her position.” The suit also alleges that Sonmez was retaliated against for speaking out.

As a result, the lawsuit claims, Sonmez has lost opportunities for career advancement and has experienced “economic loss, humiliation, embarrassment, mental and emotional distress, and the deprivation of her rights to equal employment opportunities.” She has received treatment from therapists and psychiatrists and also developed severe jaw pain from grinding her teeth due to stress, the lawsuit said.

A spokesperson for The Washington Post declined to comment on the lawsuit, which names former executive editor Martin Baron, managing editor Cameron Barr, managing editor Tracy Grant, national editor Steven Ginsberg, deputy national editor Lori Montgomery, and politics editor Peter Wallsten. Baron, who retired from The Post at the end of February, also declined to comment. (The lawsuit was first reported by CNN.)

In a statement accompanying the lawsuit, Sonmez said the coverage ban “retraumatized and humiliated me by forcing me to relive my assault at work, over and over, whenever news broke and a colleague would ask why I wasn’t allowed to cover a story. … Their actions do a disservice to Washington Post readers and send a chilling message to all female journalists: Stay silent about your assault, or your career is on the line.”

Sonmez, when contacted, referred The Post to attorney Sundeep Hora. In a statement, Hora said that Sonmez “was more than capable of performing her duties” and that “The Post and its editors chose to treat her differently because she is a woman and a victim of a sexual offense.”

Sonmez is seeking punitive, compensatory damages “in an amount to be determined by the jury that would fully compensate [her] for the economic loss, humiliation, embarrassment, and mental and emotional distress caused.”

Over the past year and a half, the newspaper’s handling of Sonmez’s case has roiled the newsroom and drawn consternation from The Newspaper Guild, which represents nonmanagerial employees at The Post. More than 300 Post staffers signed a letter in support of Sonmez in January 2020, after her suspension.

While the Guild praised Post management in March for reversing the coverage ban, it said in a statement at the time that the decision “came only after much public criticism and at the expense of Felicia’s mental health.”

This story has been updated to note that Kobe Bryant faced not just accusations of rape but criminal charges that were later dropped.