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Judge tosses Fox News sex harassment claims from ex-contributor

The ruling comes nearly a year after Cathy Areu's claims were severed from the more severe rape allegations that a producer lodged against one of Fox's now-canned male hosts.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A woman who was a recurring guest on Fox News programs must amend her sexual harassment and retaliation claims against the network and some of its top personalities, a federal judge ordered Thursday.

Dubbed “The Liberal Sherpa” in her unpaid contributing spots, Cathy Areu had originally teamed up with former Fox Business producer Jennifer Eckhart to sue some of the most recognizable faces of the network — Ed Henry, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Howard Kurtz — in July 2020.

Areu detailed several specific examples of a hostile work environment — unwelcome comments about her physical appearance, text messages containing “wildly inappropriate sexual images" and invitations, both explicit and implied, to meet with male hosts alone in their hotel rooms. All were part of what Areu called the “pay-for-play” environment at Fox, where she and other female contributors must accept sexual advances from the men in order to succeed.

In October 2020, the court severed Areu's claims from those of her co-plaintiff, Eckhardt, who says Henry violently raped her, and that the network chose to sit on the allegations for three years. Fox fired Henry in late June 2020, claiming that it was the first it heard of the rape allegations and that it took swift action against the pundit.

Fox and Henry laid out their arguments to dismiss Areu’s complaint in July, saying an unpaid guest has little basis to allege an employer-employee relationship.

U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams agreed in a 33-page ruling Thursday, saying Areu failed to state a claim for both discrimination and retaliation.

While Areu said male candidates were not subjected to as rigorous of a hiring process as she was, Abrams found the evidence of this lacking. 

“Areu has provided the court with almost no information about those applicants other than their gender,” Abrams wrote. “Without any factual allegations about the qualifications of these male applicants, the Court cannot fairly compare them to Areu.”

Abrams also found there to be no substance to Areu’s retaliation claims against various Fox hosts.

Areu claimed that her invitations to appear as a guest on "Tucker Carlson Tonight" disappeared from more than a dozen in 2017 to three in 2019 and zero in 2020 after she turned down Carlson's advances, like changing clothes in front of her after a segment and suggesting, perhaps obliquely, that he would be alone in his hotel room.

To the Obama-appointed Abrams, however, neither Areu and Carlson were clear enough.

“But for silence or a refusal to 'play along' to be fairly interpreted as an opposition to or rejection of a sexual advance, either the advance or the refusal must be sufficiently clear so as to permit an inference that opposition to sex discrimination was communicated to the defendant,” Abrams wrote.

Similarly Abrams found little support for the claims against Hannity, who Areu claims tried to “auction her off” to men on set, and Kurtz, who she claims wanted to meet up in his hotel lobby.

Abrams points out that Areu did not refuse to “play along” with Hannity, but instead emailed him to thank him for having her on the show and for paying for her drinks. As for Kurtz, Areu made several attempts to meet up with him in the lobby after initially denying him.

Areu found more traction with her claims against Henry, who she says he implied to help her career if she had sex with him and sent her several graphic images of women’s vaginas.

Unhelpfully for her lawsuit, however, Areu did not describe facing any backlash from Henry when she denied him.

“In sum, Areu pleads no facts to support the inference that her refusals of his sexual advances motivated a change in Henry’s behavior that was professionally detrimental to her,” Abrams wrote.

Areu also alleged Fox released “cherry-picked” emails she sent in an effort to portray her negatively, but Abrams refuted that claim, finding it to be a “reasonable defense measure.”

Fox cheered dismissal of Areu's case Thursday. As for the claims of her former co-plaintiff, the network reiterated its position that, "upon first learning of Ms. Eckhart’s allegations against Ed Henry, Fox News Media immediately commenced a thorough independent investigation and within six days dismissed Mr. Henry for cause."

"We look forward to proving through the discovery process that Fox News Media takes harassment allegations seriously and acted appropriately," it added.

James Vagnini, an attorney for Areu with the firm Valli Kane & Vagnini, insisted that the fight’s not over.

“We are disappointed with the decision, but also appreciate the court's determination that the facts asserted by Ms. Areu against Fox and the individual defendants are not frivolous,” Vagnini said in an email. “Given the technical basis for the dismissal, we are taking the time to review Ms. Areu's opportunity to amend the complaint, as the court suggested.”

Abrams has given Areu until the end of the month to submit an amended complaint.

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