A racial-discrimination suit that involves use of the N-word filed by a white, former Philadelphia news anchor may finally be heading to a federal courtroom.
Tom Burlington, an award-winning TV reporter, claims he was fired by Fox29 for using the N-word -- without malice -- during a newsroom meeting, while black employees were not punished for using the same word at the station.
The case has been delayed multiple times. Days before it was supposed to go to trial in January 2011, attorneys for Fox successfully argued that the case should wait until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case. The court ruled in favor of that plaintiff two months later, but Burlington’s suit continued to languish for four more years.
U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick, noting the case had been stalled long enough, wrote last month in a memorandum that “[w]e will not further delay its resolution by permitting ‘piecemeal review and its attendant delays and waste of time.’ ”
A trial date could be set as soon as Friday, according to court officials. Court records give the following account of the case:
Burlington used the reviled word in a June 23, 2007 staff meeting as Fox reporters and producers discussed a story about the symbolic burial of the very same N-word by the Philadelphia Youth Council of the NAACP. During the mock funeral -- complete with pallbearers, a casket, and a eulogy -- the epithet reportedly was spoken at least 100 times.
During the discussion about the story, Burlington, who was scheduled to co-anchor the evening news that night, asked the question that would destroy his career.
“Does this mean we can finally say the word n-----?” Burlington asked. One of the show’s producers, who is black, exclaimed, “I can’t believe you just said that!”
The discussion proceeded. The word was not used on the broadcast that night.
But gossip that Burlington had uttered the word during the meeting immediately rippled through the station. His co-anchor, Joyce Evans, who is black and had not attended the staff meeting, confronted Burlington.
Asked on Tuesday if she had a comment about the case, Joyce Evans said “I have absolutely none.”
Evans remains the anchor of the weekend “Fox 29 News at Six.” The year after Burlington was fired, The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists named her “Broadcast Journalist of the Year.”
According to the suit, Evans told him, “Because you’re white you can never understand what it’s like to be called a n----- and … you cannot use the word n------.” Evans has denied using the word in her conversation with Burlington, according to court papers.
The next day Evans called the home of the station’s Assistant News Director, Leslie Tyler, who is black. Evans told her about the staff meeting and said that employees were upset over Burlington’s words. Tyler then called the reporters and producers who had been in the meeting but did not call Burlington, according to court papers.
Burlington said he attempted to mend bridges by apologizing personally to several African American station employees. But according to the suit, the apologies weren’t enough for Evans, who was out to get Burlington fired.
She allegedly encouraged fellow employees to denounce Burlington to management. Evans tried to enlist a white coworker to complain because “[t]he only people who have complained so far have been black people,” according to a deposition cited by Judge Surrick.
Burlington was summoned to speak with the station’s Department of Human Resources, Ameena Ali, who is black, and was asked to give his side of the story. Burlington repeated the conversation from the staff meeting, including the epithet he had used.
“Tom, you’re still saying the word; why are you doing that?” Ali responded, according to court papers. This brought the meeting to an immediate end, and Burlington was suspended.
Surrick wrote in last month’s memorandum that an African American employee who was likewise asked to give an account of the staff meeting “used the epithet several times in the email that he sent” to the station’s management. “He was not disciplined.”
On July 3, 2007, Burlington was given a stern warning in writing, informing him that his “behavior was unacceptable and will not be tolerated. You will not be warned again.” The letter ordered Burlington to attend racial-sensitivity training. Burlington immediately scheduled a session.
But soon after, the station’s management began to receive requests from employees that they not be assigned to work with Burlington, saying they were concerned for their safety if they were seen on the street with him.
After attending the racial-sensitivity session on July 6, 2007, Burlington said the company’s counselor told him she did not believe that he “had racial bias or related issues” and declared him fit to return to work. That was not to last.
Evans contacted the station's Department of Human Resources to say she was hearing comments from “people talking to [her] on the street” and said she had concerns about her on-air chemistry with Burlington after his use of the N-word.
Surrick, in a memorandum published in October, wrote that “[t]he evidence suggests that when Evans intervened, the investigation was largely complete and the final determination made that Plaintiff would be put back on the air.”
On July 12, 2007, management told Burlington his contract would not be renewed. Burlington told the the station’s management that it would ruin his career if they terminated him.
According to court papers, the station’s news director, Philip Metlin, who is white, told Burlington that he would “come through this without any problems.” The station’s General Manager, Mike Renda, who is white, told Burlington that their concern for Burlington’s safety was the basis for the decision.
Burlington never returned to the station. He was paid through the end of his contract, which expired on Feb 19, 2008.
Despite 20 years in the business and a resume that includes an Edward R. Murrow Award, he has not been able to find another job in TV news. Burlington now sells real estate on the Main Line.
Burlington’s attorney, reached Monday, sounded relieved that the case might soon be heard by a jury.
“We are very much looking forward to this trial,” said Laura Mattiacci. “We’ve been waiting many years.”
Representatives for Fox29 could not be reached immediately for comment.
When Burlington filed suit in May 2009, he named as defendants News Corporation, Fox Television Stations, Inc. and Fox Television Stations of Philadelphia. The suit seeks unspecified damages.
In his October memorandum, Surrick concluded that there was a “genuine issue” whether FOX Television Stations had been negligent in permitting “its employees’ discriminatory acts” to cause Burlington’s termination.
“[T]his appears to be a case in which management simply rubberstamped the desire of some of Plaintiff’s coworkers [of whom Evans was the most visible] to see him terminated,” Surrick wrote in October.