The decision by New York City’s professional women’s basketball team to hire a former NBA player and coach as its new president has met with controversy, primarily because of his own history of sexual harassment allegations. In 2007, an employee of the New York Knicks NBA team sued the team organization, its head coach, and its chairman, claiming sexual harassment by the coach. The case resulted in a partial jury verdict, followed by an $11.5 million settlement with the team. Nearly eight years later, the former coach was hired as the president of the WNBA’s New York Liberty team. While the 2007 verdict and settlement have no legal effect on this hiring decision, it has caught the attention of the media and advocates for victims of workplace harassment. The history of the case is worth revisiting.
On May 5, 2015, the chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company (MSG), which manages the Knicks and the Liberty teams, as well as New York City’s professional hockey team, named Isiah Thomas as the new president of the Liberty. Thomas is a former NBA player, who played for the Detroit Pistons from 1981 to 1994. After retiring from playing, he became a coach. He was the head coach of the Knicks from 2006 to 2008, during which time he and the MSG chairman were named as defendants in a sexual harassment lawsuit.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Sanders v. Madison Square Garden, L.P., et al., No. 1:06-cv-00589, 2nd am. complaint (S.D.N.Y., Nov. 10, 2006), played basketball when she was an undergraduate at Northwestern University in the early 1980s. She went on to a career in marketing and joined MSG as Vice President of Marketing in 2000. She received a promotion to Senior Vice President in 2002 and eventually “became the second highest-ranking official” in the Knicks organization. Id. at 1.
She alleged that her career “proceeded without impediment,” id., until MSG hired Thomas in December 2003 as president of the basketball division. Her lawsuit described an ongoing campaign of sexual harassment, efforts to sideline her within the organization, and retaliation for reporting the matter to her superiors. She sued MSG, Thomas, and the chairman for sex discrimination and retaliation under federal, state, and city laws.
The case went to trial in 2007. The jury found for the plaintiff on several of her claims and awarded her punitive damages of $11.6 million. This reportedly included $6 million in punitive damages for the sexual harassment claim and $5.6 million for the retaliation claim. The jury held the chairman liable for $3 million of that amount, with MSG liable for the remainder. It was unable to reach a determination, however, on whether Thomas was liable for damages. After the defendants filed a motion to set aside the verdict, the parties settled the case at the end of 2007. MSG ultimately paid the plaintiff $11.5 million in damages.
The sexual harassment lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent New York City employees and prospective employees in claims for sexual harassment, hostile work environment, sex discrimination, and other violations of city, state, and federal employment statutes. Contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.
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City in Upstate New York Reviews Sexual Harassment Policies As Complaints Filed Against City Officials, New York Employment Attorney Blog, May 26, 2015
Lawsuit Filed in New York State Court Alleges Sexual Harassment, Retaliation Against Medical Practice, New York Employment Attorney Blog, May 22, 2015
Sexual Harassment Complaint Against New York Limousine Company Results in Judgment for Plaintiff of Over $720,000, New York Employment Attorney Blog, May 15, 2015