Short Take: Severing Moonves

Shed no tear. Les Moonves will not go hungry. But the Board of Directors of CBS found a hook to deny his $120 million severance package by terminating him for cause. Even so, it’s not good enough because it wasn’t the “right” cause.

It’s a small sliver of justice for the women who say he harassed them and then ruined their careers when they rebuffed him. But the fact that he stood to gain any money at all exposes the preposterous way that corporate America has treated sexual harassment.

It’s worth noting what should be obvious: Sexual harassment is illegal. That has been the case ever since Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, a 1986 Supreme Court decision that said that sexual harassment violates laws prohibiting workplace sex discrimination. And yet companies that catch an executive engaging in this illegal act can’t always fire him for cause. Even more typically, they turn a blind eye to such conduct. It bears repeating: This behavior violates the law.

And, indeed, it does. If it happened, but more importantly, if someone does something about it. If it’s a crime, they can go to the police. If it’s not, they can go to the EEOC and, if necessary, sue under Title VII. But saying out loud, or in a newspaper, something “violates the law” isn’t the way law works. It bears repeating: This isn’t the way the law works.

In the case of Mr. Moonves, it wasn’t sexual harassment that cost him his job. As The Times reported in September, when the accusations first came to light, “it was the evidence that Mr. Moonves had misled his board — even more than the allegations of abuse from multiple women — that doomed him.”

Moonves had an employment contract with CBS. Contracts are legal things, providing for the terms and conditions of employment, including termination and severance in his case. He was accused of sexual harassment, and he denied it. What never happened is that any putative victim acted upon it in a way that mattered legally.

It’s a small sliver of justice for the women who say he harassed them and then ruined their careers when they rebuffed him. But the fact that he stood to gain any money at all exposes the preposterous way that corporate America has treated sexual harassment.

See what Bryce Covert did there? Not a word is uttered as to the failure of an alleged victim, or an accuser had they ever bothered to actually accuse Moonves in a forum that could have possibly had legal consequences. It’s as if their secret feelings, later revealed in the stories they would tell, untested by ordinary means by which our society has determined allegations of impropriety are to be proved, are magic. No need to go to the cops. No need to make a complaint to the EEOC. No need to sue. Just feel something and the burden shifts to “corporate America” to vindicate your feelz.

This isn’t about what Mooves did, or whether he was the lowest, most abusive, big name in media since the as-yet innocent Harvey Weinstein. This is about circumventing the means by which such complaints are determined in favor of “justice” by accusation. And yet, Mooves got beat out of his $120 mil, and they’re still complaining that his termination for cause wasn’t good enough.

That’s because his most recent contract stipulated that “cause” means only a felony conviction, fraud, failure to cooperate fully with an investigation, or a violation of company policies. Allegations of sexual harassment — which is, to repeat, illegal, although it may not be a felony — did not count. It would have been even harder to hold him to account if the acts happened before he joined the company, even if they had gone unpunished by a former employer.

No, “allegations of sexual harassment” do not count, because they’re mere allegations. If you wanted to hold Mooves accountable for his sexual misconduct, then use the legal means available for you to do so, and be willing to suffer the scrutiny that our legal system requires of the accuser. Repeating, ad nauseum, that conduct is “illegal” doesn’t prove the conduct happened. We have a way to do that, and it’s not complaining about it in the funny pages.

11 thoughts on “Short Take: Severing Moonves

  1. Jeffrey Gamso

    Even if “sexual harassment” is a felony in some jurisdiction, that wouldn’t violate the contract. Those fools at CBS didn’t say that commission of a felony would be cause, they said that “felony conviction” would be cause. That’s a very different thing.

    Everyone may commit three felonies a day (I’m following the rule by not linking to Silverglate’s book), but nobody is actually convicted of every one of them.

    1. zoe

      “… “cause” means… a violation of company policies…”

      That’s a pretty broad brush whereby everyone may “violate company policies” at least TEN times a day. This rather undefined term covers any possibility of breach of contract lawsuit.

  2. Jake

    It sounds to me like old Les has a strong case to sue for breach of contract. Assuming there is no risk, such as the threat of opening himself up to additional scrutiny he can not withstand, he’ll be filing any minute.

    1. Skink

      Maybe it’s Christmas; maybe I’m losing my mind. It’s more likely the glass of whiskey someone handed me at lunch.

      Based on what is reported, CBS doesn’t want to pay because Moonves violated a term of the contract by misleading the investigation into his activities, some of which supposedly happened before he was CEO of CBS. He was required to cooperate in investigations, by contract. CBS says he didn’t cooperate, so he doesn’t get the money because he breached the contract. That has nothing to do with whether he actually sexually harassed anyone. See how your statement that he has a claim for breach, and should therefore get the money, doesn’t work?

      The point of the NYT piece is CBS shouldn’t pay because Moonves is a sexual harasser and should never be paid. Forget, the author says, that the contract says it must pay except on certain conditions. And this is Gamso’s point: Moonves doesn’t breach the contract based on mere allegations–there must be a felony conviction. The clause was obviously based, to lawyers’ minds, on plain, everyday lawyerin’ by the lawyer representing Moonves when he signed the contract. It made it so mere allegations or claims couldn’t be the basis for a breach.

      The point of the post is mere allegations don’t matter, either in dealing with the specifics of a contract, otherwise in the law or plain ol’ common sense: people can say anything, but proof matters. People can’t be punished just because someone says something happened–the something either happened or it didn’t. It really matters if the something is flat untrue. SHG isn’t saying the allegations are untrue; he seeks the proof before the outrage, which according to the NYT piece is any consideration that CBS should comply with the contract. But the contract is the law. The law is not what some people deem fair.

      Figure it another way. Jake says Moonves has a claim for breach because there was no felony conviction. Jake is wrong, but that doesn’t matter. So, CBS must pay. See the problem?

  3. B. McLeod

    “Not a word is uttered as to the failure of an alleged victim, or an accuser had they ever bothered to actually accuse Moonves in a forum that could have possibly had legal consequences.”

    Because any such word would count as “victim-blaming” and the Unicorn Brigades cannot countenance “victim-blaming.” Hence, it is obviously the failure of the law to be self-executing that is the problem.

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