EXCLUSIVE: AT&T’s former president of content and advertising has sued the telecommunications giant for wrongful termination, claiming he was fired as a “scapegoat” to clear the way for AT&T’s $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV.
Aaron Slator was at the center of a media firestorm in April 2015 when his executive assistant revealed in a discrimination lawsuit that he’d allegedly sent a racist text to a friend. The text showed a dancing black child and the words: “It’s Friday N*****s.”
Slator had been playing a key role in negotiating and facilitating AT&T’s merger with DirecTV. According to his lawsuit, one of his primary responsibilities throughout 2014 and early 2015 was “to prepare for AT&T and DirecTV’s planned $48.5-billion merger,” which had been announced in May 2014.
But he was fired the day after the discrimination lawsuit was filed against him. A few days later, a headline in the New York Post said: “AT&T’s Racial Bias Lawsuit Could Affect DirecTV Deal.”
And according to his lawsuit, filed today in Los Angeles Superior Court, that’s just what AT&T was afraid of, and that’s why they threw him under the bus, even though top company executives had known about the text for more than a year.
Responding to Slator’s charges, AT&T says: “Diversity and inclusion are important core values to us. We stand behind our decision to terminate Mr. Slator and are confident that his baseless allegations will ultimately be rejected.”
According to his suit, the text had first been discovered in late-2013 by a previous executive assistant while transferring data from Slator’s work phone. She then filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that numerous AT&T executives, including Slator, had discriminated against her on the basis of race and then retaliated against her for filing the EEOC charge.
The assistant, who reportedly received “protected status” at the company for being a whistle-blower, was transferred to a different department, but an internal investigation, conducted by an independent consultant, concluded that she had not been subject to racial discrimination, and that Slator’s conduct did not warrant termination or any other adverse employment consequences.
Even so, he offered to resign – not as an admission of wrongdoing, his suit states, “but as a good corporate citizen.” His bosses, however, would not hear of it. According to his suit, Lori Lee, his immediate supervisor, and David Huntly, AT&T’s associate general counsel, both told him: “No. Resignation was not necessary or even something he should consider.”
He attended diversity training sessions with an equal employment opportunity consultant, and in January 2014, his suit states, the company “affirmatively assured and represented” to him that its investigation “constituted a full resolution” of the matter, and that AT&T wanted him “to continue working for AT&T as president of content and advertising sales.”
According to his lawsuit, AT&T also “promised” him that he “would not be terminated or otherwise be subjected to any other adverse employment action as a result of the events underlying the 2013 incident. By proposing and making this agreement, AT&T and Slator understood that AT&T had modified Slator’s ‘at-will’ employment status, so that Slator could not be terminated for the events or conduct underlying the 2013 incident and AT&T’s investigation thereof.” On that basis, the suit states, he agreed to continue his work for AT&T.
More than a year later, however, the executive assistant sent the offensive text to his new executive assistant, Knoyme King, who then filed suit against AT&T and several executives, including Slator, alleging race discrimination and unlawful retaliation. And that’s when the text became public.
“King’s allegations against Slator implicated precisely the same text messages and conduct that had been the subject of AT&T’s internal investigation of the 2013 incident,” his suit states. “In fact, King admitted that she received copies of the text messages from the other executive assistant. In short, the claims and allegations in the King litigation were based directly on the 2013 incident that AT&T had fully resolved internally more than a year earlier, in January 2014.”
The day after King filed suit, Slator was fired. “To add insult to injury,” his suit states, he first learned of his termination through the press after AT&T issued a press release. “This press release falsely stated that AT&T had independently determined that Slator had engaged in ‘demeaning behavior’ warranting immediate termination. The press release thereby endorsed media reports about the validity of the King litigation, neglecting to mention that AT&T’s exhaustive internal investigation had, in fact, expressly concluded that Slator’s behavior during the 2013 incident did not warrant termination or any other adverse employment action.”
According to his suit, the “false and defamatory” press release was followed by a letter from Slator’s supervisor, conveying the “business decision to terminate” his employment. “The letter plainly stated that the decision was made ‘after a review of the circumstances and your past conduct.’ In other words, AT&T terminated Slator for exactly the same events it earlier concluded were an illegitimate basis for his termination.” By terminating him, his suit states, AT&T breached an oral agreement not fire him over the 2013 incident.
“AT&T told Mr. Slator that they had thoroughly investigated the 2013 situation, and promised him that his job was secure,” said his attorney, Patricia Glaser. “Then almost two years later, with no new evidence or allegations, and without investigating the matter, AT&T unceremoniously fired Mr. Slator. The only difference is that AT&T was now under intense public and regulatory scrutiny for one of its biggest mergers and it needed someone to blame, and unfortunately that was Mr. Slator. With this legal action, we will prove that AT&T breached it agreement not to terminate Mr. Slator, causing him immense and irreparable damage.”
As it turned out, the King lawsuit followed closely on the heels of another lawsuit filed against AT&T and DirecTV by the National Association of African-American Owned Media and Entertainment Network Studios, which accused the companies of “racist and discriminatory practices” in their contracting process. Slator was not named as a defendant in that case, which was resolved when the companies agreed to add programming from Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, which was also a plaintiff.
“It is clear,” Slator’s suit claims, that AT&T terminated him “so that it could serve up a scapegoat for the claims of rampant, systemic, and far-reaching racial discrimination throughout AT&T as an organization,” and that AT&T then “panicked that these claims would further imperil its already precarious merger discussions with DirecTV and the Federal Communications Commission.”
As a result, he claims that he’s “suffered great, if not irreparable, injury to his reputation, not to mention the loss of millions of dollars in compensation.”