Federal suit alleges employment discrimination at BH Media

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Gayla Price, a former advertising sales representative, alleges she was subjected to employment discrimination and sexual harassment during her time at the News & Record. (file photo)

A former advertising sales representative is suing BH Media Group — the owner of the News & Record and the Winston-Salem Journal — for alleged violations of the Fair Pay Act and employment discrimination based on race and gender, along with sexual harassment.

Gayla Price resigned from her position as an advertising key account executive at the News & Record in April 2017. Price’s suit, filed in federal court last week, asserts that her separation from the newspaper constituted constructive discharge because of ongoing discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment.

Kelly Young, a former digital designer at the newspaper who is also named as a defendant in the suit, was terminated from the News & Record in March 2017 and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor indecent exposure in December of that year, resulting in a sentence of court-ordered counseling for “sexually deviant behavior.”

The lawsuit also names Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the parent company of BH Media controlled by investor Warren Buffett, and BH Media News & Record as defendants.

Price is now employed as the key accounts executive in Triad City Beat’s sales department.

Price’s lawsuit contends the defendants violated her rights to be free from sexual harassment and employment discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. Price, who is a black woman, alleges her former employer discriminated against her on the basis of race and sex.

The complaint also says that Price “brings this collective action on behalf of herself and other similarly situated female advertising sales employees of BH Media Group Inc. for widespread and systemic discriminatory practices that have resulted in substantial pay disparities for women sales associates at its 77 media properties nationwide.” As part of a set of collective action allegations under the Equal Pay Act, the lawsuit asserts that “Ms. Price seeks to represent all females who are or have been in advertising sales positions at BH Media Group properties, and maintains they were paid less than male advertising sales employees for performing substantially equivalent work.”

Price declined to comment on the lawsuit, while referring questions to her lawyer, Cate Edwards of the Edwards Kirby law firm in Raleigh. Edwards, who is the daughter of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, did not return messages for this story.

While extensively detailing allegations of disparate pay, racism and sexual assault experienced by Price during a 12-month period when she was employed at the News & Record, the lawsuit also charges that “Berkshire Hathaway — from the top all the way down to its media properties — has a male-dominated corporate culture ingrained with sexual harassment, dirty jokes and inappropriate commentary about females.”

As evidence, the lawsuit cites a 2017 interview with Buffett in which he reportedly equated efforts to acquire disinterested companies to a woman’s consent to sexual acts. “And if a lady says no, she means maybe,” Buffett reportedly said in an interview with CNBC. “And if she says maybe, she means yes. And if she says yes, she’s no lady.”

BH Media Group and Berkshire Hathaway Inc., both based in Omaha, Neb., could not be reached for comment for this story.

BH Media acquired the News & Record from Landmark Media Enterprises in January 2013.

A Berkshire Hathaway Inc. ethics and compliance brochure obtained by TCB quotes Buffett as saying, “I want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper — to be read by their spouse, children and friends — with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter.”

Young’s sexual misconduct against at least two female employees at the News & Record, including Price and an unnamed reporter, has been previously detailed in Triad City Beat, but this is the first time Price’s allegations of employment discrimination have been publicly aired.

Soon after being hired by the News & Record in May 2016, Price says she learned a white employee with comparable duties and less experience was paid $5,000 more annually than she was.

In July 2016, Prices says that she and a white male were both promoted to two new advertising key account executive positions, despite the fact that her counterpart had no advertising experience compared to her nine years of experience.

The suit alleges that the advertising director “regularly bypassed Ms. Price and gave university, bank, and venue client accounts to her white male counterparts.” And after Price brought the matter to the attention of human resources, the suit contends, the advertising director retaliated by withholding information from clients that she needed to do her job and by “making derogatory comments about minority advertising clients,” including NC A&T University and Compare Foods. The suit says the advertising director made a joke in front of Price and three white male colleagues that “the only way you can stop” Tarik Cohen — then the black running back for the NC A&T football team — was to “take a gun and shoot him,” which she perceived to be intimidating and threatening.

Price said the sexual harassment by Kelly Young began shortly after she approached human resources to attempt to resolve her discrimination complaint.

In the first of three incidents detailed in the lawsuit, Price said Young walked up to her cubicle shortly before Thanksgiving 2016 holding a manila envelope in front of his crotch and then removed the folder to reveal his semi-erect penis in front of her face.

The lawsuit states, “Although HR had repeatedly been notified of defendant Young’s sexual harassment of female employees, nothing was done to address this outrageous sexual harassment. Despite having perpetrated this egregious sexual misconduct at least ten times, defendant Young was not terminated, put on leave, or otherwise disciplined.”

After Young was eventually fired in March 2017, management learned that another employee attempted to report an incident of sexual misconduct by Young as early as 2014. Daniel Finnegan, the publisher of the News & Record at the time, told TCB in December 2017: “There was a breakdown, that is true. We’re not denying it. We’re being up front about it. It was a single point of failure, not a systemic failure. One person made a decision to not document this complaint.”

And although other employees told managers they had been accosted by Young going back as early as January 2016, Finnegan insisted in an interview with TCB that the incident was not reported at the time, and management only learned about it when Young was fired in March 2017.

In early 2017, Price said she learned that Young been convicted of assault inflicting serious bodily harm for “breaking a man’s jaw,” and “became concerned for her personal safety.”

Price said she met with Finnegan on April 20, 2017 and “felt betrayed, shocked and disgusted” on learning that the publisher had been aware of Young’s criminal behavior towards female employees “since at least early November 2016.”

Alton Brown, the current publisher of the News & Record and Winston-Salem Journal, did not respond to messages for this story.

Price said shortly after leaving the News & Record, her psychiatrist diagnosed her with severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The ongoing discrimination and retaliation she endured, paired with the discovery that her employer had patently permitted ongoing, severe workplace sexual harassment by [a] harasser that had previously been convicted of physical assault,” the lawsuit says, “created a work environment that Ms. Price could no longer reasonably tolerate.”

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