Why did Trump supporter Douglas H. Wigdor take on Fox News? The same reason he’s sued the Weinstein Company, NY1 and, yes, Uber
Published in 2019 New York Metro Super Lawyers Magazine on September 30, 2019
Douglas H. Wigdor is no stranger to the spotlight. At his eponymous firm, he represents victims of discrimination and sexual assault against high-profile defendants such as Uber, Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He recently made headlines as the Trump-supporting conservative leading a crusade against the president’s favorite media outlet, Fox News, having filed an onslaught of racial- and gender-discrimination suits against the company at the same time news of sexual harassment claims against Fox icon Bill O’Reilly were gaining national attention.
Wigdor, who studied politics at Oxford University, and left a senior employment defense role in 2003 to rep plaintiffs, says he’s never had a client ask about his politics. “The premise that I deal with is equality,” he says, “and that is something that hopefully crosses party lines.”
Wigdor’s reputation brought the first Fox News case to him. He then used his media savvy to advance the case—appearing on Good Morning America with his three clients, who told George Stephanopoulos they had endured humiliating, racist treatment from their former boss, Fox comptroller Judith Slater. Among the accusations: Slater allegedly called their department the “urban payroll division” and asked reporter and anchor Kelly Wright if her children were fathered by the same man.
“Once we went on Good Morning America, people came out of the woodwork who had similar experiences with Judy Slater; so that propelled our large race-discrimination case,” says Wigdor.
The suit became a punitive action on behalf of 11 current and former Fox News employees, including Wright. It was followed by a suit on behalf of Fox 5 reporter Lidija Ujkic alleging both racial and gender discrimination, such as being told she was “not attractive enough” for a full-time position. Another complaint alleged that Fox News Radio correspondent Jessica Golloher was terminated for complaining of gender discrimination. The combined suits received so much attention that Wigdor, Wright and Golloher were invited to speak before British Parliament as it considered 21st Century’s $15 billion bid to acquire the Sky media corporation in the UK—a deal that ultimately failed.
Since those matters were resolved last year for a reported $10 million (Wigdor cannot discuss the settlements), he now takes a softer tone toward the network and the parent company he routinely mocked as “18th Century Fox”—attributing the problems at Fox News to two people no longer with the cable news outlet.
“As our complaints had alleged, the head lawyer at Fox News, Dianne Brandi, was good friends with Judy Slater, and there were no real controls,” he says. “That was the root of the problems that created a bad working environment, especially for people of color.”
Though Wigdor’s conservative ideology made for catchy headlines during the legal battle, he says the Fox News case fits neatly within the trajectory of his career.
“When I first started my career in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor, I loved that job because I was helping victims and people who had no place else to turn,” he says. “From there, I went to a private employment firm. It didn’t sit well with me. I felt I could do a lot more being on the other side of things—more like I was in the D.A.’s office—so I started my firm back in 2003 with an eye toward helping people who have been victimized in some way: victimized by their employer, discriminated against or harassed, or sexually assaulted, knowing that the person who I would be representing, in most cases, would be up against a big company with large and unlimited resources. There was a space for someone with my trial abilities to vindicate their rights and make them whole.”
That’s what Wigdor sought to do when he represented the hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the IMF, of attempted rape in 2011.
“We contended the Manhattan D.A.’s office didn’t do right by her, as a woman of color and an immigrant,” Wigdor says. “They didn’t treat her the same way as a white woman from the Upper East Side. They treated her as someone who had done something wrong. We openly advocated for her, and at the end of the day were able to vindicate her rights.” The case settled for an undisclosed amount.
The news coverage surrounding that case led a woman, allegedly raped by an Uber driver in New Delhi, India, in 2014, to reach out to Wigdor’s firm. “We sued them in San Francisco, where they’re based, under the theory that the lack of safety protocols that Uber had at the time led to someone with a criminal background driving her and raping her,” Wigdor says.
He sued Uber a second time on behalf of the same client in 2017 when he learned that three senior executives had, during the previous case, obtained and shared the victim’s medical records in an attempt to discredit her story.
Later that year, he sued the company yet again on behalf of two more women raped by their drivers. At issue in the new case was whether the women would be forced into arbitration before their lawsuit could proceed, since the Uber app includes a mandatory arbitration provision. Rather than trying to litigate his clients out of mandatory arbitration—which would be difficult, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of forced arbitration—Wigdor went back to the media: His clients sent an open letter asking that Uber waive arbitration voluntarily.
It worked. Uber not only waived mandatory arbitration for those clients but now has a policy waiving it for all sexual assault cases.
“We pioneered this way of making public how [mandatory arbitration] affects our clients,” says Wigdor, who partially credits new safety measures, like the app’s 911 button and ability to show friends where you’re going, to his litigation.
Making matters public is key, he adds. He cites private settlements paid out by Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein—settlements that allowed them to have their contracts renewed and carry on bad behavior—as why sexual assault/harassment allegations require more transparency. “Stuff that goes on behind closed doors is not a good thing,” he says.
In this regard, Wigdor sought to hold the Weinstein Company’s board of directors liable for the alleged rape and sexual assault of his client, an actress who says she was brought to a hotel room to discuss a TV role. The “director defendants,” Wigdor says, could have prevented the alleged rape; instead, they unanimously approved a contract that specified escalating amounts for Weinstein’s misconduct incidents.
“If the issue is foreseeability, they knew he had done it before,” Wigdor says. “They specifically contemplated him sexually assaulting people and paying a fine, but then continuing in his role as co-chair. That’s just absolutely crazy. The bottom line is, they knew. It’s uncommon to hold a board liable for acts of its chair, but it’s also unheard of for a board to know about a chair’s criminal conduct and insulate him from being terminated.”
A district court judge has rejected that argument, but, Wigdor says, “We’re going to continue to pursue the claims … against Bob Weinstein, Harvey’s brother, and ultimately appeal the decision. Because we think the law—unfortunately, as it stands now—is a relic. It doesn’t look at the way people work in the 21st century. We’re hopeful that the 2nd Circuit will adopt the standard we’ve articulated.”
In the meantime, Wigdor’s latest media target is news channel NY1 and its operator, Charter Communications. The lawsuit, filed in June on behalf of five female journalists, claims their careers suffered as a result of age and gender discrimination that pushes older women off the air.
“I feel so strongly on this issue of a level playing field and vindicating the rights of true victims,” he says. “I do believe in every one of the cases I handle or I wouldn’t take them.”