White Female Dog-Walker Alleges Race and Gender Discrimination, Defamation by Former Employer
In a case that highlights the many challenges faced by employers, the white female dog-walker, who called police on a black male bird-watcher during a dispute in New York’s Central Park, has sued her former employer and the company’s CEO in federal court. On May 25, 2020—the same day as George Floyd’s death that sparked nationwide protests—Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper (unrelated) locked horns about Ms. Cooper’s failure to leash her dog in violation of Park rules. Video footage taken by Mr. Cooper showed Ms. Cooper saying, "I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life” and other similar statements. The Manhattan District Attorney later filed a criminal charge against Ms. Cooper for falsely reporting an incident, which charge was ultimately dismissed after she completed five psychoeducation and therapy sessions on racial equity and biases.
On the next day, May 26, Ms. Cooper’s employer, financial services company Franklin Templeton, said on Twitter that the company had performed an internal review of the incident and terminated her employment. The company’s announcement further stated that it does not tolerate racism of any kind. Cooper’s lawsuit also alleges that the company’s CEO Jenny Johnson gave multiple interviews suggesting that it had performed a full and fair investigation and that the facts were undisputed. As a result of these statements, Cooper claims that she received “countless phone calls” and text messages on her personal cell phone from people threatening and harassing her and that the public obtained her personal phone number from the company’s telephone system. Cooper claims the Company’s public statements about her discharge implied that she “was a racist” and led to her characterization in the media “as a privileged white female ‘Karen.’”
Cooper alleges that because of her race and gender, the company failed to properly investigate the incident and terminated her employment. She claims that the company sought to communicate with her about the incident on the day it occurred, while she was “palpably distraught and fearful of her safety” and that the company did not attempt to interview anyone, obtain her 911 calls, or investigate previous incidents she claims occurred between Mr. Cooper and other dog-owners, including an alleged incident between Mr. Cooper and a black dog-owner.
Ms. Cooper also claims that the company discriminated against her because she is female and pointed to Chuck Johnson, who in 2002 while serving as co-president of the company under his father, then-CEO Charles B. Johnson, “slammed his wife into a kitchen stove hard enough to break the bones of her face.” Despite his conviction and two-month incarceration following the incident, Cooper's lawsuit states that the younger Johnson joined the company’s board of directors in 2013.
As employers know, companies face many challenges when responding to complaints of bullying, harassment, and discrimination occurring inside and outside of the workplace. To reduce the risk of successful claims/charges/lawsuits, employers should conduct thorough, impartial, and timely investigations of all complaints before acting against an employee.
Employers can also minimize the risk of successful defamation lawsuits and other claims by revisiting their handbooks and personnel policies, including social media policies. Further, statements about current and former employees must be carefully crafted and reviewed before they are issued.
Last, this case is a good reminder that the conduct of company leadership—including conduct by the board of directors, officers, managers, and supervisors—may be subject to widespread public scrutiny. To avoid these pitfalls, employers should thoroughly review all aspects of their organizations so that any issues can be addressed.