‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ Goes After Its Sexual Harassment Accusers
Vin Di Bona Productions, the company behind ‘AFV,’ won a motion for its accusers to pay up to $150,000 in legal fees. A judge just okayed it and the women are distraught.
The company behind America’s Funniest Home Videos has been accused of trying to intimidate accusers in a civil lawsuit against three former staffers who claim they were subjected to workplace sexual and racial harassment—and a judge just signed off on it.
Back in March 2019, three former female employees of Vin Di Bona Productions, which runs the family-friendly comedy show AFV, filed suit against the company and its spinoff FishBowl Worldwide Media.
They later came forward as Columbia Crandell, Jessica Morse, and Tunisha Singleton, detailing their experiences of alleged sexual misconduct, retaliatory tactics, casual racism, and an overall toxic environment to The Hollywood Reporter back in October.
Now, Vin Di Bona Productions has won a motion that demands for the accusers to cough up what could reach $150,000 for its legal fees—although the case is nowhere near its conclusion. Under California FEHA law, this is basically unheard of because employees are only liable for legal fees once a judge makes their final ruling, attorney Barbara E. Cowan of Workplace Advocates, who is representing the women, told The Daily Beast. Plus, the judge ordinarily has to deem the case frivolous or that it was brought in bad faith.
To Cowan, the decision is “egregious.” “To my knowledge this has never happened before, that victims of harassment or discrimination of any kind in California have been told they need to pay their employers’ attorney fees for simply not agreeing to arbitration and not stipulating to it,” she said. “Especially this amount they’re seeking, $150,000, I don’t even know how they got to have those numbers.”
The plaintiffs are challenging the arbitration agreement on the basis that the company named on the agreement is “Cara Communications Corporation,” and although it’s under the umbrella of Vin Di Bona Productions, is not a part of the suit. They also argue the agreement is not enforceable under California law.
To Cowan, the legal fees motion was a “Hail Mary” by Venable LLP, the firm representing Vin Di Bona Productions, to intimidate the women. Not so coincidentally to Cowan, the day before the motion was filed the company learned even more of its former employees had reached out to Cowan and her team with their stories, corroborating the women’s claims of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.
“This motion is clearly designed to chill current and former employees’ exercise of their rights to provide testimony or seek redress for the abusive and unlawful actions of Defendants in the workplace,” claims Cowan in her opposition to the motion for legal fees.
Vin Di Bona Productions’ legal team declined to comment when contacted by The Daily Beast.
On all fronts, Cowan believes the company is employing sneaky tactics. Despite both parties being in arbitration, Vin Di Bona Productions’ legal team filed the motion in civil court, where it would appear on the public docket. “We’ve been compelled to arbitration, but they consciously did not file this in arbitration where it would be kept under wraps,” she explained. “This is a really public way to threaten people exercising their rights of coming forward.”
The Superior Court of Los Angeles County told The Daily Beast that Judge Landin could not comment on pending cases due to judicial ethics restrictions.
But Cowan isn’t going down without a fight for her clients, whose stories all allegedly occurred around 2018.
In the suit, Crandell claims in May of that year a high-ranking executive, Philip Shafran, invited her into his office under the guise of trying out a new VR headset. But things took a turn after he shut the door, and while Crandell was distracted by the game, he allegedly appeared to take a picture up her skirt.
Crandell, who had been hired in December of 2017, alleges in her complaint that she reported the misconduct two days later and was allegedly told by Lisa Black, the vice president of business development, and Paul Lapointe, Vin Di Bona Productions’ COO and executive vice president, that it would be investigated. Crandell claims she was then shuttled off to a different part of the office, away from her team, and was secretly switched from a salaried employee to an hourly rate, with the promised inquiry never materializing.
She says she finally ended up resigning when Morse, who was hired in March 2018, also voiced her concerns to Black and Lapointe over working with Shafran due to Crandell’s encounter with him, the suit claims. Both executives cast doubt on Crandell’s story, according to the suit, and allegedly vaguely threatened, “If you say something about someone and it turns out not to be true, you can be legally responsible.” After that meeting, both the women say they handed in their notices in October 2018.
Their experiences overlap with Singleton, who alleges in the suit that she ended up being “laid off” around April of 2018. Singleton, who is Black, claims she was teased for not watching Black Panther and other staffers made comments about her hair. But the final straw for Singleton, she claims, was during a comedy event being hosted by a female supervisor, who allegedly publicly targeted Singleton in front of a room of 50 people, including her co-workers, bosses, and potential business partners.
Singleton claims in her complaint that the woman called her a “crack whore,” said she needed to stop doing “blow in the bathroom,” and that she would “never produce anything, should just stop, and wasn’t going to amount to anything.” Black allegedly laughed at the remarks.
Singleton complained and a week later she was “laid off,” though no one else was laid off and her position was being advertised for, the suit claims.
For now, Cowan and the women will have to wait until April to see exactly how much Judge Landin will award in legal fees to Vin Di Bona Productions, as the company failed to produce a complete record of its billed hours in its last-ditch motion. He is also waiting until then to decide if he will stay the order, meaning that the fees wouldn’t have to be paid until the end of the case.
If Judge Landin doesn’t go down that route, Cowan and her team plan to file a writ in the slim chance that a court of appeals will reverse his decision. Typically, only four percent of writs are granted, according to Cowan. Then if the writ is denied, Cowan said she plans to file an emergency stay, which if granted, would delay payment until Judge Landin’s final ruling on the case.
But if all of Cowan’s motions are denied, Vin Di Bona Productions could go after the women for the money, possibly putting them into bankruptcy.
“He’s kind of dangling it out there,” Cowan said. “My clients are subjected to even more victimization and anxiety for that extra month, if not longer. I don’t have any hope that he’s going to actually stay [the order]. He seems to be intent on really sticking it to these women.”