LOS ANGELES (CN) — While the hit crime drama “Criminal Minds” wrapped up last year, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Wednesday ruled that a harassment lawsuit against a former director of photography on the series, CBS and the Walt Disney Company can move forward.
Gregory St. Johns worked on “Criminal Minds” for 14 years and during that time created an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment, according to a complaint filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) on behalf of the agency and crew members who worked on the series.
“Criminal Minds” ran from 2005 through February 2020 and was co-produced by Disney-ABC Television and CBS. Those studios are named in the complaint and are accused of allowing a hostile work environment to fester.
During his time on the show, St. Johns berated crew members who disagreed with him and he called for retaliatory firings that were often supported by executives overseeing the show, according to the lawsuit. There was also the frequent groping of men’s genitals, slaps on their buttocks and kisses and caresses on the necks of crew members, the state agency said.
Disney called the complaint vague as it proposed a class of all the people who worked with St. Johns on the show over 14 years, which would entail thousands of workers in a demurrer filed this past January.
“Criminal Minds” is no longer in production and St. Johns does not work for Disney or CBS, but DFEH argued those companies practically approved of his behavior after they ignored several complaints, hid the misconduct claims and kept him on the series where he could harass others.
While Disney argued that DFEH was not able to file the complaint on behalf of the crew on “Criminal Minds” and the class proposed by California agency is too broad, Superior Court Judge Daniel Buckley denied Disney’s demurrer on Wednesday.
Jennifer Baldocchi, of Paul Hastings LLP and attorney for Disney, said that DFEH would need to argue that all the proposed class members suffered the same type of injury and the agency has not been able to satisfy that basic standard.
“There has to be a much stronger glue to put the class together and justify proceeding in a group action,” Baldocchi said during Wednesday’s hearing.
She argued that it would be nearly impossible to conceptualize the case before a jury or to determine that 100% of the class was harassed, discriminated or retaliated against by St. Johns. She said there are going to be crew members who were exposed to St. Johns and did not feel the same way.
“There are going to be people who worked on 'Criminal Minds' who were participating willingly in locker room behavior and there are going to be people who worked on 'Criminal Minds' who never suffered an adverse employment action,” Baldocchi said. “There are going to be people who worked on 'Criminal Minds' who weren’t offended by a butt slap like a football coach gives to a player as he runs onto a field.”
Assistant Chief Counsel Sue Noh with DFEH argued that individual producers on the set were witness to St. Johns’ behavior. But those producers called the complaints against him a “witch hunt” and that likely means they were not taking the issue seriously.
“As counsel has done, they’ve minimized these incidents of harassment as just ‘locker room’ behavior. This is not a locker room. This a work place,” Noh said.
Noh argued the case is not simply a class action suit, but a law enforcement action to stop discrimination and harassment. The agency argues that the executives overseeing “Criminal Minds” did not stop the abuse and the agency alleges a uniform failure by executives and the production companies.
“That is the glue that defense counsel is looking for,” Noh said. “Every member of this crew that worked under Mr. St. Johns, in his direction of the photography — it’s not everyone — those are the most likely people and that’s who we’re talking about. People who came into contact and were under his control and direction.”
That could potentially include a class of tens of thousands, argued the defendants. Baldocchi called the complaint broad, unfair and unmanageable as presented by DFEH.
Noh said that the class could be much more narrow. Baldocchi asked that DFEH file an amended complaint that made that narrow distinction, but later Noh said that it’s still unclear how many people would be included in the class without looking at the evidence.
Buckley was unclear if Noh was arguing the class was smaller or not.
“I was just trying to take what you argued and that was, ‘It ain’t a thousand or thousands. It’s far less,’” Buckley said.
Later Noh said, “What are the undisputed facts? That’s what we’re all trying to get to. At this stage, it’s not an HR department limited to 'Criminal Minds' alone that we’re looking into.”
Baldocchi argued that DFEH is trying to expand its case from an isolated incident into “an undefined nebulous of behavior at a large company” and it’s inappropriate. She argued that there would be a tremendous amount of evidence if the class was so broad.
Buckley didn't address the undefined nebula, but admitted that this matter was in the complex department for a reason.
“Let’s take the simple allegation here: An individual in a position of power and in contact with lots and lots of people over 14 years leads to a case that’s going to require a lot of discovery and that’s why it’s complex,” said Buckley. “This is going to be a case of intense labor, unfortunately.”
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