The impact was shockingly swift and substantial, with repercussions that will be felt across corporate America for years to come. That’s the assessment of legal experts on the influence of the sexual harassment suit filed by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.
Just two months after Carlson’s suit was filed in New Jersey, Ailes is out, the top management ranks at Fox News are in flux and parent company 21st Century Fox has issued a public apology to Carlson — in addition to writing her a check for an estimated $20 million. Carlson’s allegations about a pervasive culture of harassment toward female employees toppled a storied run for Ailes that seemed unshakeable just three months ago.
Legal eagles cited the series of extraordinary circumstances surrounding the case — from the public profiles of Carlson and Ailes to the approach of the presidential election — as factors that incentivized Fox to reach a settlement as quickly as possible. On Tuesday, Fox confirmed it had reached a settlement with Carlson — even though her suit did not name Fox as a defendant — that included a mea culpa “for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.”
Paul Rothstein, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and an expert in lawsuits, likened Carlson’s litigation to the far-reaching effects of the suit filed by Paula Jones against President Clinton in 1994.
“In terms of the rapidity with which it had impact and the enormity of the ripples it had it’s at the top of the list with very few other cases,” Rothstein told Variety.
Emily Martin, VP for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., said the settlement sent a strong and positive message to working women around the country that sexual harassment claims will be taken seriously.
“Having this play out on the public stage can only have positive impact on leading victims of sexual harassment to feel more empowered,” Martin told Variety. “Seeing the reaction both at Fox and in the public to Gretchen Carlson’s accusations, seeing this pretty swift and on the whole positive resolution for the lawsuit sends a really positive message to women around the country who are experiencing sexual harassment at work.”
Martin emphasized that Carlson’s status as well-known journalist making allegations against a powerful figure magnified the impact of her case.
“Having a public figure say ‘I was harassed — this happened to me and it needs to stop’ really is a unique aspect of this case, which is one reason why we’ve seen such a quick response,” Martin said. “Fox recognized it’s difficult not to believe someone who has been in the business of giving them the news for many years.”
Fox News’ standing as a news organization also made the parent company extremely sensitive to its public image, Rothstein said.
“Fox News wanted to have credibility in this election season,” he said. “One reason why this was so quickly settled is that they don’t want this to dog their coverage and be a side issue that distracts from that coverage.”
The legal strategy that Carlson’s team implemented of suiting Ailes as an individual rather than Fox as a corporate entity will be influential in allowing such cases to sidestep arbitration clauses in many employment contracts, Martin said.
“Fox’s attempt to channel this into secret arbitration and to ensure that any sort of allegation would never see the light of day failed spectacularly here,” Martin said. “Hopefully what that means is that companies will take seriously the fact that they could face not only legal liability but damage to their reputations if they aren’t taking proactive steps to ensure the culture in their companies is civil and respectful and does not include any horrible toxicity.”
Although Fox wasn’t formally on the hook in the suit, it had as much if not more to lose than Ailes if the case had gone to trial.
“It isn’t surprising that Fox felt appropriate that they had a real interest in resolving this issue rather than (face) more damaging revelations through a long drawn-out public trial,” Martin said.
Rothstein added that Ailes’ stature as “the personification of Fox News” made it inevitable that he would lose his perch, especially as other women came forward with allegations.
A quick settlement is the most desired outcome for plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases, Martin said, because it demonstrates to other victims that claims will be taken seriously and that it won’t take years to reach a resolution.
The significance of Carlson’s settlement will be felt in workplaces for years to come, both in the attitudes of employees and the preventative steps taken by employers to guard against harassment claims. Yet the allegations regarding the culture at Fox News surfaced more than 25 years after the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace made national headlines when law professor Anita Hill leveled allegations during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. This underscores how pervasive the challenges of employees of both sexes can face in working environments.
“What’s shocking about the allegations in this case was that this sort of really blatant and grotesque harassment was happening at the highest levels, and that people who seemed to have a lot of power were being subjected to that harassment,” Martin said. “Certainly if someone like Gretchen Carlson felt for a period of years that she couldn’t figure out how to get out of this situation, it really demonstrates how hard it is for someone who has a lot less power in their workplace and far fewer resources to call upon to push back when they’re experiencing this sort of harassment.”