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Breaking down the Thomas trial

Why didn't Knicks settle?; will NBA punish Thomas?

Posted: Monday September 24, 2007 8:31PM; Updated: Tuesday October 2, 2007 12:35PM
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Isiah Thomas and the Knicks didn't settle with his accuser, instead taking their chances in a highly publicized trial.
Isiah Thomas and the Knicks didn't settle with his accuser, instead taking their chances in a highly publicized trial.

Some key questions in Isiah Thomas' sexual harassment trial:

1) Last September, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission endorsed Browne Sanders' claims. Why didn't that resolve the dispute?

The short answer is that the EEOC did not and could not conduct a trial, and may not have provided Isiah Thomas or Madison Square Garden with adequate opportunities to refute Sanders' allegations. The long answer reflects the nature of the EEOC, which is a federal agency responsible for preventing discrimination in the workplace. As part of its mission, the agency conducts investigations into alleged instances of workplace discrimination. Under law, Sanders was required to present her claims to the EEOC as a prerequisite to civil litigation.

In response, the EEOC conducted a review of the available facts, and Spencer H. Lewis Jr., who directs the EEOC's New York office, issued a ruling. He identified evidence of a hostile work environment at MSG and also evidence that MSG officials failed to take the necessary steps to prevent or correct the sexual harassment. Though persuasive, his ruling did not constitute a verdict. The legal merits of Sanders' claims can only be determined in a court of law, which supplies the parties with opportunities to cross-examine witnesses and to demonstrate weaknesses or untruths in the opposing party's claims.

2) Why didn't Thomas and MSG settle with Sanders before the case became a public spectacle?

If the pre-trial litigation of this case proceeded normally, there probably were settlement discussions and likely efforts by trial Judge Gerard Lynch to encourage a settlement. As celebrated attorney Alan Milstein, who has litigated on behalf of Allen Iverson, Maurice Clarett, and Eddy Curry, tells SI.com, "I find it hard to believe that there were no attempts made by the judge to try to get the parties to settle."

At first glance, the absence of a settlement for Thomas and MSG officials can be questioned, as even if they ultimately defeat Sanders in court, the trial itself might inflict serious professional harm. The case has drawn massive media attention, much of it negative toward Thomas and MSG.

On the other hand, if Thomas and other MSG executives genuinely disbelieved Sanders' claims, they may have dismissed any form of settlement with her as unacceptable, irrespective of the negative publicity that would arise from contesting her claims. As Milstein observes, considering that Thomas and MSG are "deep pocketed" defendants, they likely possessed the resources to settle Sanders' claims. The fact that they did not may shed light on how they perceive the meritoriousness of her claims. Such skepticism, if well-founded, would allude to an important point about our legal system: If justice is the primary goal that we ascribe to courts, we do not want defendants capitulating to untrue or exaggerated claims merely out of fear of public relations consequences. Along those lines, salacious allegations are still only allegations until proven in court.

However we interpret the absence of settlement, the parties could still settle. Sometimes a week in court changes how a litigant views the weeks ahead and how he or she weighs the pros and cons of a settlement.

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