Just more than a month BET’s Head of Original Programming Zola Mashariki disputed that she had left the Viacom-owned channel, she has hit the media giant with a gender-discrimination and wrongful-termination lawsuit amidst claims of a “misogynistic culture.”
“These claims misrepresent the facts and are without merit,” a spokesperson for the Sumner Redstone-controlled company said in a statement today regarding Mashariki’s May 3 filing. “We strongly deny any allegation of wrongdoing and we intend to respond to the specific allegations in the course of legal proceedings. At Viacom and BET, we take the health and well-being of our employees very seriously and we are committed to fostering an inclusive, diverse workplace that supports the success of all employees.”
That is certainly the opposite of how the ex-executive sees the situation at BET and its corporate parent – both when she was there and the way she was treated when it was announced March 30 that Mashariki has been pink-slipped while still on medical leave for breast cancer.
“Defendants’ conduct has been deliberate, willful, oppressive, malicious, fraudulent, and conducted in callous disregard of Ms. Mashariki’s rights, entitling her to punitive damages,” claims the 39-page jury-seeking filing made Wednesday in federal court in California (read it here). “The decision to defame Ms. Mashariki was made, approved, and ratified by officers and managing agents of Defendants Viacom and BET, including Defendant Stephen Hill, BET CEO Debra Lee, and SVP and Associate General Counsel Amy Dow,” it adds.
Viacom, BET and now-departed BET president Hill are named as defendants in wide-raging complaint seeking damages, back and forward pay, benefits and injunctive relief. Mashariki also wants the court make an order requiring “Defendants Viacom and BET to initiate and implement programs that (i) remedy the hostile work environment at BET; (ii) ensure prompt, remedial action regarding all claims of harassment; and (iii) eliminate the continuing effects of the discrimination and retaliatory practices described herein.”
A successful 15-year Fox Searchlight vet, Mashariki joined BET in early 2015 to lead its programming slate. While “so successful, it was scary,” as the filing quotes BET’s head of sales Louis Carr, Mashariki as diagnosed with “early breast cancer” in late 2016. The exec says she worked at BET until February 6 this year when she began a medical leave. Subsequently, Mashariki was told she had a more severe form cancer and would need more treatment and a “longer” medical leave.
“With neither evidence nor cause, the Company questioned the validity of her diagnosis, interfered with her short-term disability request, prevented members of her team from contacting her, and deliberately damaged her reputation,” the complaint alleges. “When Ms. Mashariki was at her weakest moment, Viacom, BET, and Defendant Hill escalated their retaliation against her, proffering that due to her disability, she could no longer represent BET.”
Which brings us to yesterday’s not unexpected legal action.
“Ms. Mashariki now seeks legal redress from a jury for the many violations of her civil rights,” the filing states. “Specifically, Ms. Mashariki seeks to remedy the gender discrimination and harassment she witnessed and experienced at BET, magnified because she is a woman of color, and the retaliation she was subjected to when she complained; to remedy the discrimination and retaliation she faced after taking protected medical leave; to remedy the fact that the Company paid Ms. Mashariki less than male comparators for substantially similar work; to reinstate her standing at the Company; to remedy the Company’s subversion of Ms. Mashariki’s rights under her employment contract; and to remedy the defamation to which Defendants subjected her.”
Despite refuting the allegations in Mashariki’s complaint, Viacom has not said when it will file a formal response.
Going for a national presence, Mashariki is represented by a team of lawyers from Oakland’s Medina Orthwein LLP, and the D.C. and San Francisco offices of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.