By Steven J.J. Weisman
BOSTON — The watershed moment in the history of sexual harassment that started with the rapid downfall of Harvey Weinstein has claimed another victim in Matt Lauer, although let’s be clear, Matt Lauer is not the victim in this case, it is the women whom he is alleged to have harassed over a long period of time who are the real victims.
Many of us were startled to learn early Wednesday morning that NBC had terminated the contract of longtime “Today” show host Matt Lauer. The termination followed close on the heels of an allegation of sexual harassment that was brought by another NBC employee against Lauer. The female NBC employee, along with her lawyer Ari Wilkenfeld, met with NBC’s human resources and legal department Monday night for several hours to discuss the allegations.
An email from NBC News chairman, Andy Lack to NBC employees that was read on the air by Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, Wednesday morning stated, “On Monday night, we received a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer. It represented, after serious review, a clear violation of our company’s standards. As a result, we’ve decided to terminate his employment. While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over twenty years he’s been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.”
Wednesday afternoon Variety published a story detailing complaints of sexual harassment made against Lauer by a number of other women.
The swiftness with which this matter progressed is indeed startling. The initial complaint was received by NBC on Monday night and he was fired during the evening of the very next day. There was no prolonged investigation and no suspension. It was swift justice.
One can assume that the evidence was immensely compelling to lead NBC to terminate the popular host of an extremely profitable program.
But what are the legal issues involved and is the case over or just beginning?
NBC, like all media employers, includes a morals clause in its standard contracts. These morals clauses vary from company to company and indeed can even vary from employee to employee, depending upon the relative strength of the bargaining power of the parties during contract negotiations. Essentially however, all morals contracts permit the employer to terminate the contract of an employee, without pay, if he or she engages in reprehensible conduct that negatively affects their image and, by association, the employer. Of course, it is not the image itself that is so important to the employer as much as how that image affects viewers opinions and, in turn, advertising revenue.
This is not the first rodeo for NBC. It was just two years ago that it removed Brian Williams from the anchor chair at the “NBC Nightly News” after it became known that he had exaggerated his experiences in Iraq.
NBC certainly has the right to terminate the employment of Matt Lauer, however, from a financial standpoint, if his termination is deemed “without cause,” Lauer would be entitled to his remaining salary under a contract purported to pay him $20 million a year through 2018. It is common for employment contracts such as Lauer’s to contain a clause providing for mandatory arbitration of disputes. Lauer could choose to challenge the charges made against him through such arbitration. He also could privately come to a settlement such as was reported to have occurred when Fox terminated the contract of Bill O’Reilly, who also faced sexual harassment allegations.
Neither Lauer nor NBC would benefit from a prolonged period of uncertainty to the ultimate resolution of this matter and that leads to the expectation of a confidential settlement between NBC and Lauer for what will be an undisclosed amount of money. But what amount will most certainly be the subject of leaks to the media.
Steven J.J. Weisman is a practicing attorney, legal editor for TALKERS magazine, a professor of Media Law at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts and publisher of the website www.scamicide.com. He can be e-mailed at: email@example.com. Steven J.J. Weisman is available as a guest to discuss legal matters and the subjects of identity theft and scams.