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Sony Must Face Soap Actress’ Race Bias Claim

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A onetime soap opera star who claims she was blackballed for demanding greater diversity in daytime TV can sue producers of one show, but her lawsuit against another show where she worked for 17 years is over, a federal judge ruled.

Victoria Rowell, a black actress, played Drucilla Barber Winters in more than 2,000 episodes of "The Young and the Restless" from 1990 through 2007. She was nominated twice for Daytime Emmys.

During much of that time, Rowell also "was a vocal advocate for increasing the number of African Americans who appeared as actors in television soap operas, and ... as writers, directors and producers," U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt noted in his June 24 order.

She "reluctantly left" the show after years of slights and mistreatment and after producers rebuffed her requests to write or direct episodes, according to a lawsuit she filed last year.

The lawsuit claims defendants Sony Pictures Television, Bell Dramatic Serial Co., Corday Productions, CBS Corp. and others retaliated against her because of her advocacy for diversity. It also alleges that the defendants generally "treated African Americans as 'second-class citizens,'" Kronstadt said in his order.

In the newest version of her lawsuit, filed in December, Rowell again says the production companies and broadcaster CBS retaliated against her for her advocacy by refusing to hire her back in her old role on "The Young and the Restless" or on a sister soap opera, "The Bold and the Beautiful."

In a new claim, she also accuses Sony and Corday Productions of blocking her bid to apply for a role on "Days of Our Lives" by removing her name from the audition list.

Kronstadt dismissed the first set of claims with prejudice because neither soap opera ever sought to bring back Rowell's character, who had been killed off.

An employment discrimination claim generally requires an applicant be denied an "open position," but in this case, neither show had an open position for an actress to fill, the judge ruled.

Rowell argued that a retaliation claim is broader than a strict employment discrimination claim.

She said "the critical issue is not whether Rowell had applied for an open position that defendants were actively seeking to fill, but whether a reasonable employee would have found the failure to hire Rowell materially adverse," according to the ruling.

The judge ruled, however, that the broadened scope of retaliation claims only protects current employees or applicants for "open positions."

"Plaintiff has not cited any authority, and the court has found none, in which a retaliatory failure to hire claim was permitted without an allegation of an actual open position," he held.

Rowell's claim about "Days of Our Lives" did involve an open position to play "a 35-50 year-old African-American or Asian special prosecutor." A different actress later landed the role.

Her lawsuit says she was lined up to audition for the part but later was "taken off the list." It is "plausible to believe that Sony and [a senior vice president] directed her removal from the audition list," she claims.

Kronstadt ruled Rowell can pursue her lawsuit over that role because she applied for an open position that she didn't get but that the employer continued to fill.

The judge also rejected an argument from Corday about whether it knew of Rowell's advocacy for diversity in soaps. Kronstadt said the lawsuit claims that TV executives move among companies and know each other well and that she "was a leading voice for diversity in the entertainment industry."

He also rejected defendants' argument that their actions were protected as free speech. Rowell's lawsuit does not claim "that the decision not to hire her was related to defendants' creative vision of their programs," which is protected — instead, it deals with producers' disagreements with Rowell's positions about diversity, according to the ruling.

Kronstadt's ruling removes CBS from the litigation.

Defense attorney John P. Lecrone of Davis Wright & Tremaine in Los Angeles did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

One of Rowell's attorneys, Sara Wyn Kane of Valli Kane & Vagnini in Garden City, N.Y., said she and her client are "very pleased we're going forward with the claims we're going forward with. ... We would have preferred to go forward with more."

Kane said the plaintiff's side disagrees with the judge about the open-position issue and is considering options.

Besides Kane's firm, Rowell is also represented by lawyers from Mehri & Skalet in Washington, D.C., and from Hadsell Stormer & Renick in Pasadena.

"We're all co-counsel," Kane said of the three law firms.

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