Age discrimination suit rocks NBC

Evan Gahr | Investigative Journalist

A former cameraman for Chuck Todd’s “Daily Rundown” show on MSNBC is suing NBC for age discrimination.

George Hyatt, who says he also worked with Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell, claims in a federal lawsuit that he was fired by an NBC News Washington bureau supervisor who told another employee he wanted to get “young blood in here.”

Hyatt, 60, told The Daily Caller that NBC News is “a sack full of lying weasels” but Todd himself was not complicit in his dismissal. Nevertheless, Hyatt said, Todd should “speak out” on his behalf.

While it is fighting Hyatt’s suit and other age discrimination claims, NBC has never been shy about charging other companies with bias against older workers. The “Today” show has done a tutorial for older workers who feel they have been victimized, and “Dateline NBC” has done a hidden camera investigation on companies it alleged turned down older applicants on the basis of their age. NBCNews.com recently gave prominent placement to a study claiming a third of older workers experience age discrimination.

Hyatt said he had worked with Todd since the goateed go-getter first joined NBC News.

In a brief conversation with The Daily Caller, Todd alternately expressed ignorance and incredulity about Hyatt’s claims.

Todd said he knew nothing about the lawsuit and Hyatt’s dismissal but is anyway not responsible for how NBC treats the men and women who put his show on the air. “Actually, I don’t supervise them,” Todd told TheDC.

NBC News claims Hyatt was fired solely for poor job performance.

NBC Universal, the parent company of MSNBC and NBC News, this June tried unsuccessfully to convince the judge handling the case that Hyatt’s union contract prohibited him from even filing a federal age discrimination lawsuit. The court rejected that claim.

On September 16, 2013, United States District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Robert Wilkins rejected NBC’s motion to dismiss the case or, alternatively, have it referred to binding arbitration.

Wilkins said the contract that NBC claimed precluded Hyatt from filing a federal lawsuit and instead required that discrimination claims be pursued exclusively through the union grievance process was not in effect at the time of his dismissal. NBC had argued that it applied retroactively.

At the time of his dismissal Hyatt was working without a union contract.  The previous collective agreement with the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians/Communication Workers of America had allowed workers to file federal discrimination lawsuits based on age.  The contract ratified after his dismissal did not.

Wilkins also rejected NBC’s claims that Hyatt’s lawsuit should be thrown out of court because he had failed to file a complaint with his union about the dismissal. This is known legally as a failure to exhaust administrative remedies. But Wilkins said that regardless of whether a union complaint is filed the relevant contract “does not prohibit a covered employee from pursuing a judicial remedy.”

This bad news for NBC was delivered by a judge much in vogue with liberals these days. Wilkins is one of the judges whose nomination by President Barack Obama to a federal appeals court was filibustered by Senate Republicans, prompting Democrats to change the filibuster rules

On November 20, Wilkins referred the case to Magistrate Judge John Facciola for non-binding mediation. No date has been set.

Adele Abrams, Hyatt’s attorney, told The Daily Caller, “We are hoping to get the matter resolved in mediation.”

Hyatt sued NBC Universal in federal court on March 7, 2013 for violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

According to his lawsuit, Hyatt worked at the NBC News Washington bureau for 30 years. From 1977 until 1996 Hyatt was a salaried employee.

From 2000 until his dismissal in 2011 Hyatt was what is known as a “permalancer.” Legally considered employees, “permalancers” work full-time but are not salaried and only get paid for the days they work.

Hyatt said NBC relies heavily on “permalancers” for cameramen.

They receive no health insurance and no sick days but are given one week paid vacation per year.

NBC gives them $30 per day worked to buy health insurance on their own.

Hyatt claims that all but one of the cameramen and engineers who worked for MSNBC in Washington when he did were “permalancers.”

The lawsuit says that around January 2010 Hyatt “was assigned to work as a robotic camera operator” on the “Daily Rundown.” Shortly thereafter, “Management of Defendant stated that they needed to get ‘young blood in here.”

Hyatt told the Daily Caller that the comment was made by NBC News Washington director of technical operations and engineering Larry Gaetano to another cameraman. Asked if he made the remark Gaetano said, “I’ve got no comment.”

Between July 3, 2011 and July 10, 2011 Hyatt took what he said was his first vacation in three years. His complaint says that “at no time prior to this leave was Mr. Hyatt informed of any significant disapproval regarding his work. Rather, Mr. Hyatt consistently received compliments and accolades from his supervisors.”

Four days after he returned from his vacation Hyatt was relieved of his duties.  “On July 15, 2011, Mr. Hyatt’s production manager approached him about two minor mistakes he had made upon his return from annual leave, effectively terminated him and had Mr. Hyatt escorted off the NBC property without offering Mr. Hyatt an opportunity to correct any concerns management allegedly had with his performance,” according to the complaint.

Hyatt’s complaint asserts that the stated reasons for his dismissal were really pretexts for discrimination. “Other employees significantly younger than Mr. Hyatt were not dismissed despite their having made mistakes similar to or worse than those alleged by Defendant to be the reason that Defendant dismissed Mr. Hyatt.”

To further buttress its claim of discrimination the lawsuit notes that Hyatt was replaced by someone under 30.

Hyatt said the two mistakes involved pushing the wrong buttons on cameras. He said only one mistake was noticeable to viewers: when Chuck Todd sunk lower into the frame for a few seconds.

After his dismissal Hyatt applied for other positions at MSNBC, CNBC and NBC but was not hired.

The motion by NBC to dismiss Hyatt’s lawsuit did not address its factual claims. But in response to a complaint that Hyatt filed before his lawsuit with the District of Columbia Human Rights Commission, NBC claimed he was fired for poor performance.

NBC also denied that a manager said he wanted to hire “young blood.”

According to NBC, Hyatt did not follow directions properly throughout his tenure at the “Daily Rundown.” He is alleged to have frequently “over tweaked his shots,” a technical term for moving the camera off the subject.  NBC said that the two mistakes that his lawsuit claimed were “minor” were actually “major.”

NBC said that on July 12, 2011 the camera suddenly started to “pan off” Chuck Todd when he was interviewing a guest. Hyatt did not immediately respond to shouted instructions from the director to correct the error. Producers started to yell at Hyatt and he finally fixed the shot, according to NBC.

The next day Hyatt “made the same mistake” and “allowed the camera to pan off the action.”

The District of Columbia Human Rights Commission ruled on September 12, 2012 that Hyatt was fired for reasons unrelated to his age. “Complainant’s claim must fail because Respondent articulates legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions for which Complainant does not adequately rebut.”

The Commission also ruled that even if an NBC manager had made the discriminatory remarks alleged that would be insufficient to prove Hyatt was fired because of his age.

Adele Abrams, the lawyer for Hyatt, told the Daily Caller that the Commission verdict was unfair because they did not interview all the witnesses she provided. Abrams added that it is “not unusual” for the Commission to reject legitimate complaints.

After Hyatt struck out with the District of Columbia Human Rights Commission, he had better luck with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC issued him the “right to sue letter” that plaintiffs need to file federal discrimination lawsuits.

Hyatt is not the only former employee of an NBC News division to have alleged age discrimination recently.

Tim Kenneally reported for The Wrap.com on October 3 that NBC Universal and its corporate owner Comcast are being sued by a 70-year-old investigative reporter who claims KNBC, the network’s Los Angeles affiliate, fired him for complaining about discrimination he and other employees allegedly suffered there.

Frank Snepp alleges in his Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit that “It is well-known in the television industry that Defendant NBC News has fostered a ‘youth movement’ in recent years.”

In his lawsuit and interview with The Daily Caller, Hyatt also claimed age discrimination is rampant at the NBC News Washington bureau. “It’s pretty blatant. They want to get rid of anyone over 40.”

But statistics provided by the NBC News Washington bureau to the District of Columbia Human Rights Commission tell a different story. NBC said that in 2011, the year Hyatt was fired, “the overall technical workforce in the Bureau as of 2011” had more than three times as many people over 40 as under 40.

Asked why anyone should believe allegations from an obviously embittered ex-employee with an axe to grind, Hyatt said, “I know I did my job and gave it 100 percent.”

Hyatt said that if he were really determined to besmirch NBC he would have written about the network on social media. The Daily Caller learned about Hyatt’s lawsuit independently. It was not contacted by Hyatt, his lawyer or anyone working on their behalf.

Robert Clayton, the attorney handling the lawsuit for NBC, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Stephanie Franco, NBC vice president for employment law, ignored emails about Hyatt’s claim that MSNBC engineers and cameramen in Washington do not get health insurance.

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