Alycia Lane: Does She Have a Remedy for Her Termination?

On Jan. 7, 2008, local television station CBS 3 fired its popular anchorwoman Alycia Lane approximately three weeks after Lane was arrested and charged with allegedly assaulting a New York policewoman. 

The arrest was the coup de grace in a year when Lane was prominently featured in The New York Post’s gossip column “Page 6” with items about her personal life, including one which reported about her e-mailing pictures of herself in a bikini to a married sports anchor and having the e-mails intercepted by his wife.

After the arrest, CBS 3 had enough and released Lane from her contract, issuing a statement that “it would be impossible for Alycia to continue to report the news as she, herself, has become the focus of so many news stories,”   The station acted “after assessing the overall impact of a series of incidents resulting from judgments she has made,” according to Michael Colleran, the president and general manager of CBS 3.

Immediately subsequent to the termination, Lane’s attorney released his own statement, threatening suit for wrongful termination.  What legal recourse does Lane have against CBS 3?

The terms of her employment with CBS 3 are defined by her employment contract.  Therefore, she would have to bring an action for breach of the contract.  When a formal written contract of employment has been entered into, Pennsylvania courts historically have accepted the position that discharge of the employee before the end of the contract can give rise to liability under ordinary breach of contract principles. 

Lane’s contract has a specific end date, extending through September 2011.  Because CBS 3 has discharged her before the end of the contract, to justify their termination of her, the station would have to demonstrate that Lane’s arrest, as well as her previous suspect behavior constituted a “material breach” of the employment contract.  When entering into the contract with Lane, CBS 3 should have protected its interests by including language in the contract that would have allowed the station discretion to terminate her for conduct and/or behavior that reflects poorly on the station. 

If that is the case, Lane and her counsel are presumably hedging their bets that CBS 3 will want to avoid further adverse publicity and settle the suit. 

Lane would have a hard time alleging other causes of action, such as defamation or false light, against CBS 3.  CB3’s carefully drafted statement does not contain fact but merely statements of opinion regarding Lane’s effectiveness as a news reporter, thus foreclosing a potential defamation claim.

Furthermore, even if she were to prove that the statement was a false statement of fact, as a so-called “public figure,” she would also have to prove that CBS 3 acted with “actual malice” in issuing the statement.  Likewise, a claim for false light would be difficult, if not impossible. 

Under Pennsylvania law, the tort of false light invasion of privacy is defined as follows:

One who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if (a) the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (b) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed. 

Lane could claim that CBS 3 placed her in a false light by terminating her before there was a legal adjudication of her guilt or innocence for the alleged assault.  This claim would, obviously, be made difficult by the fact that her arrest had already received considerable national publicity.  Additionally, as she is being terminated for the negative publicity she brought to the station, as opposed to CBS 3’s improper pre-determination of her guilt, she would also have a difficult burden in demonstrating improper motive on the part of CBS 3. 

— Natalie Klyashtorny
Nochumson, PC

 http://www.nochumson.com/

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