A federal judge has ruled that the gender and age discrimination lawsuit filed by former FS1 reporter Colleen Dominguez against the sports network can go forward.
Dominguez sued FS1 in December 2015, alleging higher-ups there had conspired to thwart her career beginning shortly after she came over from ESPN in March 2014. The complaint she filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California said her bosses began taking her off choice assignments—including interviews she’d scheduled with Madison Bumgarner and Rory McIlroy—and kept her away from the 2015 Super Bowl while sending dozens of less experienced staffers to that game.
At the same time, her complaint alleged, Fox Sports brass issued critiques about her physical appearance of the sort that male or younger female colleagues would never get. (The complaint said Dominguez was 54 years old at the time of the filing.) One of her co-workers told Deadspin that Dominguez’s standing at the network suffered when she rebuffed bosses’ efforts to have her undergo “an Erin Andrews makeover,” complete with a facelift and hair extensions courtesy of the same stylist that worked J-Lo’s coif.
The suit also accused FS1 management of unlawfully retaliating against her when she alerted management to what she saw as gender- and age-related bias in the workplace. Though her contract with the network didn’t end until March 1, 2016, she was given no work for several months before it expired.
FS1 quickly filed a motion to dismiss the case that included a point-by-point rebuttal of the counts in the complaint. Lawyers for the network asserted, for example, that her desire to get plum assignments was trumped by freedom of speech and due process rights guaranteed to news organizations by, respectively, the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
But in an opinion registered late last week, embedded at the bottom of this post, Judge Ronald Lew denied FS1’s motion while rejecting nearly all of FS1’s arguments for dismissal. Lew ruled that the case could go forward on three of the four counts—all but the unlawful retaliation portion of the suit—and that Dominguez’s complaint could go forward without amendment. Further, he ruled that he would give her lawyers 20 days to rewrite the unlawful retaliation allegations before deciding if that count was, as Fox’s lawyers argued, “insufficiently pled.”
Lew’s order seems particularly harsh in rebuking FS1’s Constitutionally-based defenses, saying that free speech and due process protections hardly give an employer the right to trample the civil rights of its workers:
Plaintiff’s request that she is not precluded from employment opportunities because of her age and gender do not, on their face, trigger First Amendment or Due Process concerns. This Court finds it improper to provide Defendant a blanket exemption from the requirements of Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] and the ADEA [Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967] where Plaintiff does not allege that she seeks to espouse a particular message using her employment with Defendant as a vehicle, seeks to alter Defendant’s chosen message, or seeks to otherwise dictate the content of Defendant’s programming.
Dominguez referred questions about Lew’s ruling to Paul Gleason, her L.A.-based attorney.
“We’re saying this case isn’t about First Amendment rights, it’s about gender and age discrimination,” Gleason said, “and it looks like the court is 100 percent behind us on that. This case goes to the whole issue of females in Colleen’s position, and the opportunities they have to work and to benefit from their work experience similar to male reporters. That’s an important case. We think the court got it right and look forward to moving forward with the case.”
Another source with ties to Dominguez’s legal side told Deadspin that Lew’s ruling would likely strike lots of fear into FS1 brass, given that it opens the door to the discovery portion of the case. That means the former reporter will be able to find out exactly what superiors were saying about her as assignments were being doled out to others, and as her relationship with those running the network deteriorated.
Gleason confirmed that the plaintiffs will soon be issuing subpoenas for texts and scheduling sworn depositions from Dominguez’s superiors and most top FS1 officials.
“Fox was going for the silver bullet with this motion,” he says, “trying to nip this thing in the bud before we got to discovery. We only needed one claim to survive to get our foot in the door. We got that, and now we have the right to dig in, to get the facts from Fox that we need to prove our case. Everybody [at Fox] is fair game.”
Despite Gleason’s rightful glee with Lew’s decision, having the case move forward isn’t all roses for Dominguez. Even though she has been a free agent since her FS1 contract expired, being a litigant in such a high-profile lawsuit could temper potential employers’ desire to pursue her professionally.
FS1 spokesman Chris Bellitti declined to comment on Judge Lew’s denial of the network’s dismissal motion.