For the last several years, Tavis Smiley has demanded he have his day in court against his former employer, PBS. He got his wish in February, claiming that the network weaponized its morality clause against him; PBS counterclaimed that multiple, credible accusations of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment made his employment at PBS untenable. On Wednesday, a jury ruled against Smiley, finding that he had violated the terms of his contract and awarding PBS $1.5 million.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, jurors heard from more than half a dozen women who felt coerced into sexual relationships with the former host or had received unwanted sexual attention from him. Smiley, on the witness stand, claimed that the women’s stories were filled with “lies,” and that his interactions with them were consensual. The jury was left to decide not only which side was more credible, but whether this behavior violated the “morals clause” of Smiley’s contract.
Morality clauses are standard in contracts with on-air talent and, in recent years, have been used as a way to terminate contracts with personalities publicly accused of sexual misconduct and abuse.
The jury’s decision ends a public battle between PBS and the former late-night talk show host that began in 2017. And as The Hollywood Reporter notes, the trial has not been without its share of complications:
Adding to the complexity of the case, D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams previously ruled that Smiley’s conduct dating years and even decades back was outside the scope of the contract. Nevertheless, the judge allowed the jury to hear from the women given claims that Smiley continued to have a sexual relationship with an executive producer on his show, publicly lied about a 2007 settlement agreement with a female subordinate and appeared on Facebook and ABC’s Good Morning America to defend himself.
An independent investigation into the allegations included women who worked with Smiley in a variety of capacities—some were guests of his show, some were his employees—who accused Smiley of unwanted attention or touching, and of weaponizing what were ostensibly consensual relationships against them.
Importantly, these women said they felt they had no recourse for addressing his behavior, saying such efforts would be “futile” since Smiley oversaw both the organization and the human resources department, reports NBC.
Smiley had previously defended his conduct by citing statistics on how frequently people dated a workplace colleague. He was the one who initially brought a lawsuit against PBS.
The jury’s decision has bolstered the strength of morality clauses, a result that will give companies more power in ending contracts with employees accused of misconduct—both in and out of their workplaces.
PBS’ trial attorney Grace Speights framed the decision as a win for people who have experienced sexual misconduct at work.
“With this jury verdict for PBS, companies now have another tool in their arsenal to ensure a safe and respectful workplace culture,” Speights told the Hollywood Reporter. “Especially in the entertainment industry, the enforcement of the morals clause in contracts hadn’t been previously tested in courts. This decision could impact the next wave of litigation in the #MeToo movement.”