(CN) – The California Supreme Court sent a lawsuit arising from CNN’s firing of a producer back to an appeals court Monday to determine whether the network’s actions were discriminatory.
CNN hired Stanley Wilson in 1996, and he went on to become the network’s first African-American producer at its Los Angeles bureau. Despite winning an Emmy Award and other honors for his news coverage and investigative reports, Wilson says he never achieved senior producer rank because of his age and his race.
He sued the network in 2014 at the age of 51.
His lawsuit also named vice president and bureau chief of CNN’s Western region Peter Janos, who allegedly passed him over for a promotion in favor of a younger white producer. Wilson says prior to the alleged snub he took five weeks of paternity leave to be with his wife, who had given birth to twins after she had several fertility treatments under his CNN health insurance plan.
The network fired Wilson in 2014 after he was accused of plagiarizing several lines in a story about then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s retirement.
CNN brought an anti-SLAPP motion to strike Wilson’s lawsuit, claiming it acted within its free speech rights regarding editorial decisions. An appellate court disagreed, ruling the anti-SLAPP statute does not protect CNN from claims of discriminatory and retaliatory conduct.
On Monday, California’s highest court found no retaliation or discrimination exception in the statute itself and ruled CNN is entitled to a determination as to the merits of Wilson’s claims.
The Legislature enacted the anti-SLAAP statute in 1992 to protect defendants from meritless lawsuits that might stop them from exercising their free speech rights in matters of public interest.
CNN argued its selection of content producers is linked to the exercise of its free speech rights. The network also told the high court its decision to enforce journalistic standards by firing Wilson for plagiarism is also protected activity.
The first argument did not pass muster with the court.
“Not every staffing decision a news organization makes – even with respect to those who write, edit, or otherwise produce content – enjoys constitutional protection,” Justice Leondra Kruger wrote for the unanimous court, finding CNN failed to meet its burden of showing Wilson’s role had such an effect on CNN’s editorial control as to warrant anti-SLAPP protection.
“Wilson’s work was vetted and reviewed by others who did have editorial power, and who decided whether his work should – or in the case of the Baca story, should not – be published by CNN. As far as the record shows, Wilson was one of countless employees whose work contributes to what a large news organization like CNN says about the issues of the day, but was not among those who appear on-air to speak for the organization or exercise authority behind the scenes to determine CNN’s message,” Kruger wrote.
The court was more receptive to CNN’s second argument regarding its decision to fire Wilson for plagiarism.
“Disciplining an employee for violating such ethical standards furthers a news organization’s exercise of editorial control to ensure the organization’s reputation, and the credibility of what it chooses to publish or broadcast, is preserved,” Kruger wrote.
“But CNN’s invocation of journalistic ethics only takes it so far,” Kruger added, since it only became aware of potential plagiarism a few weeks before Wilson was fired.
“CNN has thus carried its first-step burden only insofar as Wilson’s employment-related claims arise from his termination,” she wrote. CNN will still have to answer for Wilson’s claims that he was given menial assignments and passed over for promotions.
The justices also rejected CNN’s claims that its private statements about Wilson’s violation of journalistic ethics do not fall under the statute.
The ruling might be seen as disappointing to those who hoped the court would give some guidance on the use of anti-SLAPP motions in employment lawsuits, over fears that employers could hide behind the statute from claims of discrimination or retaliation and force plaintiffs to prove the merits of their claims early on.
But the justices said this is unlikely, and courts can mitigate the burden on plaintiffs by granting discovery where appropriate. “The concern is overstated,” Kruger wrote. “We see no realistic possibility that anti-SLAPP motions will become a routine feature of the litigation of discrimination or retaliation claims.”
Speaking by phone, Wilson’s attorney Carney Shegerian said he was “ecstatic about the opinion as a whole,” since it establishes a stringent standard for trial courts that requires at most a preliminary screening of each case for minimal merit.
“It’s a strong directive to the trial courts that this is not meant to end cases at this preliminary stage,” Shegerian said. Calling the ruling, “a realistic and intellectually honest opinion,” he added, “If the trial courts apply it correctly it will be in very rare circumstances. It’s not going to apply in the majority of cases.”
A CNN spokesperson declined to comment.