Letterman's admission: the legal ramifications

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Letterman's admission: the legal ramifications

Fri Oct 02, 2009 @ 10:18AM PST

By Eriq Gardner

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David Letterman's surprising admission that he had sex with "Late Show" female staffers and had been blackmailed over his affairs could cause some legal discomfort for CBS.

In a statement, the network said it was "cooperating fully with the authorities" and had suspended the employee — revealed to be Emmy-winning CBS News producer Robert Halderman — pending the results of the investigation.

CBS is likely also doing its own investigation.

Most companies have clear policies covering sexual relations between employees. And David Letterman is no average employee. He's one of the most highly-paid and powerful men in media. He has the power to hire and fire employees on his show, which employment lawyers will tell you is the first red flag when evaluating a sexual relationship in the workplace.

Plus, Letterman probably has a morals clause in his contract with CBS that allows for termination for morally offensive conduct. Does this behavior rise to that level? We'd say no, but we're not running CBS.

Further, it seems unlikely that Letterman conferred with in-house CBS counsel before going live with the story. They might have advised him that speaking about the subject publicly could be used in any future civil lawsuit.

The first concern for CBS has to be liability on the sexual harassment front. Was this a quid pro quo relationship where staffers got career benefits for sleeping with Dave? Or might the sexual dalliances have created a hostile workplace for other female staffers on the show? CBS needs to investigate this further.

Letterman's admission also raises other possible issues. If the media start hounding these staffers, there could be an invasion of privacy. And if Letterman said anything untrue about Halderman or if he made implications about staffers on his show, there's a potential defamation claim too.

Letterman no doubt wanted to get on the record about this issue first — it was an awkward yet well-handled moment in TV history — but he put CBS in tough spot. The network will need to take some actions or risk some litigation.

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The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

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