Claiming to be a victim of race-based discrimination, a white former Democrat and Chronicle editor and content strategist is suing Gannett Co. Inc.
Filed Apr. 21 in state Supreme Court, the lawsuit seeks class-action status.
In addition to Gannett and the D&C, the court action names the Gannett-owned Utica Observer-Dispatch, which, named plaintiff Steven Bradley claims, turned him down for a job after the D&C let him go solely because he is white.
Bradley is represented in the action by Thomas & Solomon LLP, a Rochester firm specializing in employment-related class actions.
Gannett officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case centers on a companywide effort begun in 2020 by Gannett to racially balance staffs at the roughly 500 U.S. publications it owns.
In that effort, Gannett has pledged to racially balance newsroom staffs so that percentages of minority and female employees mirror the demographics of the population each of its publications serves.
On its website, Gannett trumpets program’s success with pie charts and graphs showing changes by racial/ethnic and gender categories since the diversity program’s kickoff.
Bradley, a Wayne County resident, worked for the D&C for 21 years beginning in 1999. The complaint catalogs positions he held over that span ranging from assistant sports editor to sports editor, content strategist and overseer of sports coverage at Gannett papers in Ithaca, Elmira, Binghamton, and Burlington, Vt., as well as the D&C. It also lists awards and honors he won from the Associated Press, the New York News Publishers Association and Gannett itself.
Gannett’s drive to diversify staff has resulted in a de facto program of discrimination against non-minorities in which Gannett as a matter of policy preferentially retains or hires minority employees or job candidates to the detriment of equally or better qualified non-minority candidates, the court complaint maintains.
The suit comes against a backdrop of expected U.S. Supreme Court in rulings in June in cases separately challenging affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. While such cases do not directly speak to the role of race in corporate hiring and retention policies, their outcome could affect how corporations like Gannett manage diversity programs.
With an apparent eye toward the Harvard and UNC cases, Thomas and Solomon attorney Adam Sanderson in the Gannett class action brief quotes former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who in a 2013 opinion wrote that “racial engineering does have insidious consequences.”
The case in which Scalia voiced that sentiment, Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin, ultimately resulted in 2016 in a 4-3 ruling that preserved the Texas school’s affirmative action program.
In that case, Abigail Fisher claimed the school’s rejection of her 2012 application was a result of racial discrimination against white applicants. A federal district court and a Fifth Circuit appellate panel found for the university. But in 2013, the Supreme Court vacated the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in favor of the university and sent the case back down to the lower courts to be retried. Scalia’s racial-engineering statement came in an opinion agreeing with the court’s decision to vacate the appellate court’s ruling.
By the time the case returned to the Supreme Court in 2016, Scalia had died, leaving the court one justice short. Affirmative action proponents saw the case as a nail biter, expecting conservative justices who had long expressed doubts about affirmative action to be likely to prevail. But former Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a moderate swing vote, cast a deciding vote that preserved the school’s affirmative action program.
In a stinging 51-page dissent to Kennedy’s 21-page decision, Justice Samuel Alito called the 2016 ruling a reversal, writing that “something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case.”
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas signed on to Alito’s dissent. Since 2016, the court has tilted strongly to the right, leading some court watchers to predict a ban on any consideration of race in college admissions.
In an analysis posted last January, Fisher Phillips LLP, a law firm with offices in 38 U.S. cities whose practice groups include one specializing in affirmative action compliance, predicts that the court will strike down college and university affirmative action, making “race-neutral or colorblind admissions for all higher education institutions … the new law of the land.”
In the Gannett action, the complaint asserts that Bradley’s termination was illegal because “there can be no question that Mr. Bradley’s termination was directly based on his race.” As proof, the brief cites an alleged admission to Bradley by the D&C’s executive editor that the decision to terminate him rather than an Asian American colleague was made solely on the basis of race.
The suit also alleges that “the Gannett employee tasked with overseeing talent recruitment and retention, Hollis Towns, informed Gannett managers that no more straight White males should be hired going forward.”
Bradley’s failure in 2021 to land the job as executive editor of Gannett’s Mohawk Valley operations, including the Utica Observer-Dispatch, was also race-based, the complaint further claims.
After submitting an application in January 2021 and going through three interviews, the brief states, “Mr. Bradley was informed that he was under serious consideration for the position and by February 2021 was informed that he was one of two finalists, the other also being a white male.”
Then, for the next month “the interview process for the executive editor position went dark,” after which Bradley was told in mid-March that a new candidate had emerged and had been hired.
The winning candidate, former D&C reporter and community engagement editor Sheila Rayam, is a Black woman, who, the complaint claims, landed the job despite “not having expressed interest or applying in the first instance.”
Rayam, who left the Utica paper a little over a year later to move to the Buffalo News as executive editor, did not immediately respond to a request to confirm or deny the lawsuit’s account.
The suit seeks back pay and lost future pay including fringe benefits for Bradley and others allegedly wrongly terminated as well as unstated punitive damages and compensation for “humiliation, indignity, embarrassment, reputational damage, emotional distress, emotional pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.”
The Bradley complaint does not precisely estimate how many downsized Gannett workers might be eligible to join the class action, stating the number to be too numerous to practically sue as individuals and at minimum to consist of “more than 40” persons.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].