NPR asks federal court to throw out discrimination lawsuit

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April Simpson/Current

NPR asked a federal court Jan. 11 to dismiss an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by a former broadcast engineer.

The plaintiff, 58-year-old Kevin Langley, alleges that his supervisors engaged in discrimination on the basis of both race and age. In a motion filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, NPR countered that Langley, who is Black, released his discrimination claims against the nonprofit when he signed a separation agreement in August 2019. The agreement provided that Langley would be paid $20,000, which NPR said it gave him in January 2020.

In exchange for that payment, the separation agreement acquitted NPR of any discrimination claims related to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, according to the network’s motion. 

In his lawsuit, Langley demanded $5 million from NPR in compensatory damages, in addition to other punitive damages, and the restoration of his director position. Langley also alleged that NPR breached the terms of the separation agreement when it delayed the $20,000 payment by several months. But in its motion, NPR argued that Langley’s breach of contract claim is baseless since he did not suffer damages from the delay.

Langley began his career at NPR in 1994 as a broadcast recording technician. He was soon promoted to technical director of Weekend Edition and later became technical director at Morning Edition in 1998. Over the next two decades, Langley climbed the ranks of production supervisor and deputy director of broadcast engineering, becoming director of broadcast engineering in 2014. 

His relationship with NPR began to sour around 2016, according to his complaint. Langley claimed that he had never received negative performance reviews but that in late 2016, Shawn Fox, then senior director of audio engineering, began a series of negative reviews in which he stated that Langley was “out of date” and “used management approaches from the past.” 

Langley also claimed a pattern of verbal abuse and racial discrimination, citing instances when white colleagues called him “boy” in closed-door meetings, an allegation that that echoed another recent lawsuit filed by a Black NPR employee. In that suit, plaintiff Zandile Mkwanazi alleged that his white supervisor, Brett Gerringer, referred to him as “boy” beginning in 2019. Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell referred the case to mediation late last year.

NPR’s motion paints a different picture of Langley’s tenure. It said that after Langley complained to NPR leadership in 2010 that he had failed to secure several promotions due to discrimination, the network investigated his complaints and determined they were baseless.

In 2016, Langley’s performance began to lag, and his reviews reflected his work, according to the motion.

“Over the course of three successive ‘overwhelmingly negative’ performance reviews, Plaintiff’s supervisors made clear that he was not adequately performing the duties of his job,” the motion stated, citing one colleague who claimed that Langley had “failed to fulfill his managerial responsibilities.” 

In May 2019, Langley became “overburdened in his position” as director of broadcast engineering and declined additional work assigned to him, the motion said. Shortly after, NPR told Langley that his position was being eliminated as part of a department restructuring.

Langley claimed that NPR “fraudulently induced the settlement agreement” by claiming that the new supervisor positions that replaced him had been in the works before his termination. But NPR argued that he would have to prove he signed the agreement under duress in order to nullify the contract.

“It is entirely unclear how the precise dates of planning for two positions at NPR would have affected Plaintiff’s decision to sign his Separation Agreement,” NPR’s motion states. “And likely for that reason, Plaintiff never actually alleges that he relied on that information in executing the Agreement.”

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