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Two Points on Abramson

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AP Photo / Evan Agostini

It is always hard to say what causes a final break—a firing, a divorce—but, clearly, a last straw came a few weeks ago, when Abramson, who made little secret of her displeasure with Sulzberger, decided to hire a lawyer to complain that her salary was not equal to that of her predecessor, Bill Keller. She had also been told by reliable sources at the paper that, as managing editor, she had once earned less than the managing editor of news operations, John Geddes. Abramson’s attempt to raise the salary issue at a time when tempers were already frayed seemed wrongheaded to Sulzberger and Thompson, both on its merits and in terms of her approach. Bringing in a lawyer, in particular, seems to have struck them as especially combative. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, argued that there was no real compensation gap, but conceded to me that “this incident was a contributing factor” to the firing of Abramson, because “it was part of a pattern.” (Update: Murphy wrote to me after this post went up to dispute this. Her quote is accurate and in context, as I’ve confirmed in my notes. However, she now e-mails: “I said to you that the issue of bringing a lawyer in was part of a pattern that caused frustration. I NEVER said that it was part of a pattern that led to her firing because that is just not true.”)

As you see, since I started writing this post, Murphy tried to get Auletta to issue a correction. And for good reason. If someone alleges employment discrimination and then retains a lawyer and you fire them for doing so, that's big, big trouble. Basically wrongful termination on its face. And compounded if the initial claim is judged valid.

Either Murphy or the Times lawyers must have realized this as soon as they saw the piece. And how big a problem it was. Thus the failed attempt to secure a retraction.

I'm curious to hear from employment and HR lawyers on this. But this is basically the first thing the lawyer tells a manager or employer in a case like this. You simply can't do that.

As a narrowly legal matter, the point is likely moot because it's been reported that Abramson and the Times reached a settlement. That should prevent any lawsuit (though in theory she still likely has three or four days to vacate that settlement.) But the court of public opinion can exact far harsher penalties than a civil court.