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Charter discrimination lawsuit to proceed

November 23, 2018

A racial discrimination lawsuit filed by a black entertainer and entrepreneur against Charter Communications can move ahead, a federal court ruled this week.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena, Calif., confirmed a lower court’s denial of Stamford-based Charter’s motion to throw out the complaint of Los Angeles-based Entertainment Studios, a production and distribution company founded and owned by actor and comedian Byron Allen. It also overturned a lower court’s dismissal of similar litigation filed by Allen against Philadelphia-based Comcast, the country’s largest cable provider.

“Plaintiffs’ allegations regarding Charter’s treatment of Entertainment Studios, and its differing treatment of white-owned companies, are sufficient to state a viable claim,” Judge Milan Smith Jr. wrote in the Charter opinion.

A message left Friday for Charter was not immediately returned. Charter, which is the country’s second-largest cable company, has condemned the lawsuit, Variety reported earlier this week.

“This lawsuit is a desperate tactic that this programmer has used before with other distributors,” Charter said, according to Variety. “We are disappointed with today’s decision and will vigorously defend against these claims.”

Allen described the rulings as “unprecedented and historic,” Variety reported.

“The lack of true economic inclusion for African-Americans will end with me, and these rulings show that I am unwavering in my commitment to achieving this long overdue goal,” Allen said.

Entertainment Studios produces TV shows and operates several networks, including The Weather Channel.

The firm had secured “carriage” contracts with more than 50 operators — including distributors such as Verizon, AT&T and DirecTV — but it could not reach a similar agreement with Charter, according to court filings.

From 2011 to 2016, Charter’s then-senior vice president of programming, Allan Singer, allegedly declined to meet with Entertainment Studios representatives or consider carrying its channels.

During the same period, Charter negotiated with white-owned networks and also made carriage agreements with The Walt Disney Co., and Time Warner Cable Sports, according to Entertainment Studios and fellow plaintiff National Association of African American-Owned Media.

Entertainment Studios’ amended complaint also accused some Charter executives of racial bias.

In one case, Singer allegedly approached an African-American protest group outside Charter’s headquarters, told them “to get off of welfare” and accused them of looking for a “handout.”

At an industry event, Allen tried to talk with Tom Rutledge, Charter’s CEO and Chairman. Rutledge refused to engage, referring to Allen as “boy” and telling Allen that he needed to change his behavior, the plaintiffs said.

Those incidents showed Charter’s “institutional racism,” according to the plaintiffs. They said the company had historically refused to carry African American-owned channels and that before its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable it had a board of directors comprising only white men.

Charter officials have said they are committed to diversity in their programming and personnel. Among initiatives launched in the past few years, the company hired in 2016 former Novartis Pharmaceuticals executive Rhonda Crichlow, who is black, as its first chief diversity officer.

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; Twitter: @paulschott

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