Jury selection begins this week in the $10 million sexual harassment lawsuit against New York Knicks president Isiah Thomas, who is accused of improper behavior involving a since-fired team executive.
Anucha Browne Sanders, a former Northwestern basketball star, is seeking reinstatement to her job and hefty damages after spending five years with the storied franchise.
Browne Sanders, once the team’s senior vice president of marketing and business operations, was not supervised by Thomas but was responsible for keeping him informed of the team’s business developments.
In the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan and also names Madison Square Garden and MSG chairman James L. Dolan, Browne Sanders said she endured unwanted sexual advances from Thomas until the team dismissed her in January 2006.
She contends she was fired “for telling the truth” while going through internal channels to stop the harassment. MSG insisted her dismissal was because she “failed to fulfill professional responsibilities.”
Browne Sanders, a married mother of three, spent 11 years with IBM before joining the Knicks in late 2000.
In pretrial motions, Thomas denied some of the alleged incidents and challenged Browne Sanders’ interpretation of others.
Thomas, a member of the Hall of Fame and one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, disputes an allegation that Browne Sanders complained to a Madison Square Garden consultant that the Knicks’ boss had said he loved her and asked her to “go off site” with him.
Thomas has acknowledged that in December 2005 he tried to kiss Browne Sanders on the cheek at a Knicks game and asked “No love today?” when she pulled away, according to a recounting of claims in the case by trial Judge Gerard E. Lynch.
Lynch, in ruling last month to let the case proceed, noted the defendants “vigorously contest at least some of the allegations against Thomas and presumably will argue at trial that those actions he admits do not amount to illegal harassment.”
After the lawsuit was filed last year, Thomas denied the charges.
“She did not even work for me,” he said. “I will not allow her or anybody, man or woman, to use me as a pawn for their financial gain.”
At a news conference after she filed suit, Browne Sanders said she was left with no choice but to sue after her complaints about Thomas failed to “stop his demeaning and repulsive behavior.”
Among claims made in court papers by lawyers for Browne Sanders is that Thomas once urged a cheerleader to flirt with referees. Thomas has denied the allegation.
In a deposition, Browne Sanders testified that the cheerleader said Thomas asked her to go into the referees’ locker rooms before a game against the New Jersey Nets and make them “happy.”
“And I asked her to tell me what that meant. And she said, ‘Well, it meant he wanted me to flirt with the referees,”‘ Browne Sanders recalled. “She was telling me he asked her to do it at that game and she didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Thomas, in a pretrial deposition, said he did send the head of the Knicks dance team to check on the officials — but only to make sure their accommodations were all right. “It was characterized as something other than it was,” Thomas said.
As part of her claims, Browne Sanders also alleges MSG retaliated against her after she complained about harassment against her and other women. Thomas was hired by the Knicks in December 2003. Prior to 2004, Browne Sanders had received positive performance reviews and numerous bonuses.
After she complained about Thomas to MSG executives in November 2005, MSG launched its own investigation and told her not to come to work for three weeks.
According to court papers, one MSG executive recommended that Thomas receive sensitivity training because he occasionally used profanity and raised his voice in the workplace and to address one occasion when he greeted Browne Sanders with a hug and a kiss.
The same memo found most of Browne Sanders allegations’ were unconfirmed, that she had exhibited a poor relationship and difficulty interacting with members of MSG management, and that she had a number of disagreements in philosophy and management style with Thomas.
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