UPDATE: This case was settled and dismissed in June 2019. In court records, Disney’s attorneys said that McDowell was terminated for poor job performance and that her claims of retaliation were “wholly without merit.” The company also stated that an internal investigation found that Blackburn did not violate the sexual harassment policy.
A former Disney Channels Worldwide executive filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging she was subjected to a two-year campaign of retaliation, and was ultimately fired, after reporting her boss for sexual harassment.
Jocelyn McDowell, a former director of multi-platform research, says that she reported her boss, Jimmy Blackburn, for making sexist and inappropriate remarks to two other women in February 2015. Though she was told her reports would be confidential, McDowell says that Blackburn identified her as a source of the complaints and flew into a rage.
According to the suit, Blackburn told her, “I will have your job by the end of the day,” and “No one does this to me.”
McDowell said she was subsequently demoted and sidelined from most of her work responsibilities before being fired.
Blackburn is vice president of brand strategy and research for Disney Channels Worldwide. According to the suit, he made inappropriate remarks while coaching several female employees on an upcoming presentation. He is alleged to have told Angela Tinari that “You are not my best presenter, but you are attractive so it will help you in that room.” On the day of the presentation, Blackburn asked Tinari, “Why are you not wearing heels today?” Blackburn also told female presenters to speak with deeper, more manly voices, according to the suit.
Tinari and another employee, Heather Semptertegui, reported these comments to McDowell. Semptertegui reported that Blackburn had told her to re-record her voicemail greeting with a deeper voice, so that people would take her more seriously.
McDowell passed the complaints to a senior manager at Disney Channels Worldwide, who in turn relayed them to a senior vice president who was Blackburn’s supervisor. The supervisor confronted Blackburn and told him to knock it off, the suit alleges.
Two weeks later, McDowell alleges that Blackburn confronted her and accused her of reporting him for sexual harassment. He began yelling and had a “temper tantrum,” threatened her career, and said that he would have total control over her work assignments going forward, according to the suit.
“Blackburn’s repeated physical and verbal outbursts and displays of anger were classic bullying behavior,” the suit alleges. “His ranting to other employees in the office about how angry he was and outward threats about terminating Ms. McDowell were intended to dissuade any other employee from coming forward with similar complaints or lending support to the complaints Ms. McDowell reported.”
A subsequent HR investigation found that Blackburn had engaged in “inappropriate conduct,” but had not violated the law or Disney’s internal policies against harassment and retaliation. He was given a warning. According to the suit, Blackburn proceeded to isolate and exclude Tinari from work functions, to the point where she resigned a couple of months later.
McDowell alleges that she was also isolated, as some of responsibilities were immediately taken away from her. A few months after the HR investigation, Blackburn arranged for her to be transferred off of his team and onto the market research team, which amounted to a demotion, she alleges. Where once she supervised three employees, now she only oversaw one person. She alleges that she was no longer able to brief senior executives in the company.
Though she was not in Blackburn’s group anymore, McDowell alleges that he continued to retaliate against her by directing employees and vendors not to talk to her. She says she complained to several Disney executives who did nothing to stop it. She says she was left without enough work to do, and her attempts to find projects were repeatedly rebuffed. McDowell went through a long series of negative performance reviews before being fired in July 2017.
She alleges that Blackburn effectively poisoned her work environment and fulfilled his promise to ruin her career.
The Disney/ABC TV Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.