Legal Issues and Newspapers and Indianapolis Star and Lawsuits and Publishing and Law

Editorial writers lose appeal against Star

December 9, 2009

Two former editorial writers at Indiana’s largest newspaper failed to prove they were the victims of religious discrimination, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

James Patterson and Lisa M. Coffey claimed their former employer, The Indianapolis Star, engaged in systematic discrimination against “traditional Christians” who believe homosexual conduct is a sin. They said the Star’s top editors opposed public expression of religion in the workplace and discriminated against those who opposed homosexual conduct because of their religion. Patterson and Coffey also argued the paper “softened” its views on homosexuality once Dennis Ryerson became the editor.

Coffey worked for the paper from 1999 until she resigned in October 2003 following an offer to move back ­– full time – to the copy desk, the position she held when she was first hired. The move was prompted by Coffey’s continuous misuse of the paper’s overtime policy, according to court documents.

While working as an editorial writer, her editors refused to publish an editorial about HIV risks associated with sodomy because of explicit detail about anal intercourse. She was also warned about proselytizing at work.

Patterson joined the Star as an editorial writer in 1995. Court documents note his work was repeatedly plagued with factual errors and often required printed corrections. Even after being placed on a performance-improvement plan, Patterson’s editorial errors didn’t decrease. Patterson, who is African-American, was fired after 18 months on the plan in May 2005.

A district court initially ruled against Patterson and Coffey. In the ruling from the Circuit Court of Appeals, judges noted that they accepted the Star’s version of the facts, just as the district court did.

The Circuit Court then affirmed summary judgment for the Star, finding the two failed to make cases of religious discrimination. Although both established they belonged to a protected class and suffered an adverse employment action, they failed to prove they performed their jobs according to the paper’s legitimate performance expectations and that they were treated less favorably compared to other similarly situated employees outside the protected class, wrote Judge Diane S. Sykes.

Neither employee could prove they were meeting the Star’s legitimate performance expectations – Coffey repeatedly violated the overtime policy and Patterson continually made factual errors within his writing.

Patterson’s claims for age and racial discrimination, and retaliation, also failed for the same reasons his religious discrimination claim did, the judge wrote.

The two also brought claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress, which the District Court properly dismissed because getting fired from a job doesn’t qualify.
 

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