Jurors Appear Close to Verdict in Isiah Thomas Sexual Harassment Suit
NEW YORK – A note from a jury in a $10 million sexual harassment lawsuit against New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden has signaled that the panel appears close to calling a costly technical foul on the storied franchise.
The judge asked jurors to keep deliberating on Tuesday before announcing their verdict. But the wording of a jury note on Monday — and instructions on a verdict form it was using — indicated it believed Thomas and the other defendants, Madison Square Garden and MSG Chairman James Dolan sexually harassed a former Knicks executive.
The note likely means that after two full days of deliberations, the jury in federal court in Manhattan has decided "against the Garden, against Thomas and against Dolan," said Jerry Reisman, an employment attorney with the Long Island firm Reisman, Peirez and Reisman.
Like many legal observers, Reisman said a verdict against MSG "would be demonstrative of its arrogance in not settling this matter" with Browne Sanders and risking the embarrassment of letting it go to trial.
The four women and three men on the panel said they reached a decision on eight of the nine questions on the verdict form. They were deadlocked on the other question, which asks whether Thomas should have to pay punitive damages.
The jury was instructed only to address the question on Thomas if it first found that he and Madison Square Garden committed harassment against the former executive. Similarly, it was told to answer other remaining questions only if it decided that the defendants retaliated against Anucha Browne Sanders by firing her from her $260,000-a-year job.
Browne Sanders' case presented the Garden as an "Animal House" in sneakers, a place where nepotism, sexism, crude remarks and crass language were part of the culture.
The plaintiff, a married mother of three, spent four days on the witness stand laying out her case against the Garden and Thomas, who is married with two children.
Browne Sanders, 44, a former Northwestern college basketball star, characterized Thomas as a foul-mouthed lout who initially berated her as a "bitch" and a "ho" before his anger gave way to ardor, with Thomas making unwanted advances and encouraging her to visit him "off site."
Thomas, who was hired in December 2003, followed her to the stand and denied all her allegations. Attorneys for Thomas and the Garden also portrayed Browne Sanders as incompetent and unable to adapt once the NBA great arrived as the Knicks' president.
"That's not about sexual harassment," MSG attorney Ronald Green said in his closing argument. "That's about team politics."
Thomas acknowledged trying to kiss Browne Sanders in December 2005, asking her "No love today?" when she recoiled. MSG President Steve Mills said he spoke with Thomas about the incident and the former Detroit Pistons point guard said it wouldn't happen again.
In her closing argument, Browne Sanders' attorney Anne Vladeck made note of Thomas' charismatic style and incandescent grin.
"There is no question Mr. Thomas can be charming and flash an engaging smile," she told the jury. "That does not give him the right to treat Browne Sanders like she is his woman."
Browne Sanders filed her lawsuit after she was fired in January 2006. Dolan, who testified before Thomas, said he dismissed the team's vice president for marketing and business operations after learning she was pressuring Garden subordinates to bolster her complaint.