<em>Legally</em> <strong>Speaking</strong>


Lessons learned from Knicks harassment case
Jim Juliano - Spring 2008

The multimillion-dollar jury verdict in the New York Knicks sexual harassment case last fall is a powerful reminder that sports teams and other employers should take steps to prevent harassment in the workplace and the liability exposure that harassment generates.

It also underscores the importance of avoiding retaliation against employees who make plausible complaints.

The verdict last October for $11.6 million in punitive damages (the case was settled in December for $11.5 million) represented, in the opinion of the jury in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, how poorly Madison Square Garden (MSG), the company that runs the Knicks, had handled complaints from Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks’ senior vice president of marketing and operations.

For 17 months, Browne Sanders had complained of harassment by Isiah Thomas, the Knicks’ on-court coach and president of basketball operations. MSG had done nothing to respond to her complaints until she hired an attorney. After an investigation that lasted less than a month, during the holiday season, and did not include interviews with all involved parties, MSG concluded not only that Browne Sanders had no grounds, but also that she should be fired.

The basics of harassment and retaliation

Workplace harassment is unwelcome verbal, visual or physical conduct that shows hostility to an individual or group because of a protected characteristic or classification, such as race, color, religion and sex.

Sexual harassment typically falls within one of two types: quid pro quo (this for that) or hostile environment. Quid pro quo is the promise of a job benefit or threat of a detriment in return for sexual favors. Hostile environment applies when an employee is subject to unwanted sex-related conduct.

Federal law applies, and many states have additional laws that apply.

A corporation may be liable, and a manager may incur individual liability for acting or failing to act.

Retaliation against the employee for making a plausible complaint creates separate liability exposure for the employer. It is a separate cause of action and claim.

How to prevent problems

Employers should:

  • Treat all reports of alleged harassment seriously and investigate promptly.

  • Protect confidentiality to the extent possible.

  • Conduct a thorough investigation and legal review before taking action against an employee.

  • Educate and train employees and supervisors about the procedure for handling a complaint.

  • Give accurate and consistent evaluations.

  • Document discipline in personnel files.

  • Maintain a zero tolerance policy for any type of harassment.

An employer that addresses these issues in advance will avoid more serious problems later.

Alison C. Healey contributed research and analysis for this article.



This website contains general information that should not be considered legal advice or legal opinion concerning individual situations. Legal counsel should be consulted for specific advice.

Copyright 2008 by L. James Juliano Jr.
Legally Speaking® is a registered trademark of the law practice of L. James Juliano Jr.