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As Broadway Grapples with Reopening and Bringing in Patrons Some Shows Also Confront Lawsuits from Actors Alleging Discrimination and Termination Due to Protected Classes Including Religion and Gender

While Broadway is up and running, and trying to stay that way despite lacking tourists, new variants of Covid, and the financial challenges to Broadway recoupment present even in “normal” times, recently, the professional theater world has also been rattled by an uptick in high profile employment discrimination and retaliation claims by actors based on their treatment and terminations. This post explores two such claims which intersect my professional legal employment and entertainment practices.

First, actor Chad Kimball filed a lawsuit following his termination from the Broadway production of Come From Away due to, as he alleges, religious beliefs.  Second, actor Suni Reid, has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging claims that they, a transgender ex-cast member of the Broadway, Los Angeles, and Chicago productions of Hamilton, encountered “frequent incidents of discrimination and harassment” against them by management and other performers, and further claim they were terminated from the show over the request for a gender-neutral dressing room.

In the matter of Chad Kimball, he was an original featured member of the Broadway company of Come From Away, having previously starred on Broadway in Memphis.  Kimball claims that after he voiced on social media his objection to a state mandate prohibiting singing in worship settings, questions were raised about his Christian religious beliefs and his contract was subsequently not renewed by Come From Away’s producers.  Specifically, Kimball posted a tweet in response to Washington State’s Covid protocol on November 5, 2020 to prohibit “congregation singing.” Kimball’s tweet said that, “Respectfully, I will never allow a Governor, or anyone to stop me from SINGING, let alone sing in worship to my God. Folks, absolute POWER corrupts ABSOLUTELY. This is not about safety. It’s about POWER. I will respectfully disobey these unlawful orders.”  Kimball received a lot of backlash after this tweet and according to his attorney, Lawrence Spasojevich, he was forced to “explain and defend” his comments to the producers of Come from Away. Kimball claims that on January 18, 2021, he was contacted by Susan Frost, a producer for Come From Away, who informed Kimball that there was a question regarding his belief as a “Conservative Christian” and that four days later he was again contacted by Frost who informed him that he would not be part of the live capture of the musical and that his employment with the show was terminated.  At the time, Frost did not address Kimball’s claim that he was terminated because of his religious views, but allegedly told him that the production needed to focus on bringing the show back together and ensure people’s safety. Kimball alleges that he soon followed up with Director of the Broadway production, Christopher Ashley, and that he directly asked Ashley if his termination was based upon an alleged disagreement with the cast and crew or because of his faith, to which Ashley stated that it was “everything.”

In his recently filed lawsuit, Kimball alleges that Come From Away  “unlawfully terminated Kimball wholly or partly because Kimball’s religious beliefs made them uncomfortable.”  In responses to the allegations, producers of Come From Away issued a statement to The Christian Post calling the lawsuit “unfounded” and claimed that “This very show is built on the power of diversity and we celebrate every voice. We cannot comment further given HR privacy rules, and we wish Chad all the best in his future endeavors.”

In his lawsuit, Kimball alleges only one cause of action under New York City’s discrimination law, the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”).  While frequently lawsuits akin to Kimball’s will allege multiple causes of action under federal discrimination law as well as state and local laws, where available, the NYCHRL is an extremely robust discrimination law with some lower standards for Kimball to meet than its federal counterpart. Additionally, the NYCHRL grants the potential for additional benefits in terms of allowance of damages as compared with the federal counterpart if Kimball succeeds in his burden of demonstrating that he was discriminated on account of his religious beliefs.  Here, Kimball claims damages including significant economic and professional harm, and emotional and physical pain and suffering including “severe emotional trauma, depression, illness, hopelessness and anxiety, loss of confidence, self-esteem and self-worth, and other irreparable harm resulting from the strain of employment controversies caused by Defendants and/or Defendants’ agents and/or employees.”

Similarly, Suni Reid, a transgender former cast member of Hamilton, both on Broadway and in touring productions, has also alleged discrimination by that production.  Reid’s allegations are based on the protected category of gender and stem from, as they have alleged, “frequent incidents of discrimination and harassment” against them by management and other performers that culminated with their termination from the show over the request for a gender-neutral dressing room. Specifically Reid alleges that management “failed to act” when the actor was “physically threatened or intentionally and repeatedly misgendered” by a small group of other performers and that members of the production team “reacted with hostility and in an adversarial matter” when Reid complained about being mistreated.  Reid alleges that when they were performing in the Broadway production of the show, they asked to be transferred to the Chicago production of Hamilton because they had “difficulty feeling safe staying with the Broadway company” after repeated instances of alleged bullying and harassment. Reid alleges that Hamilton higher-ups labeled Reid as “problematic” and claim that the show did not renew their contract because of social media posts by Reid about their alleged harassment. Further, they allege that Hamilton’s national tour “refused to renew” Reid’s contract in September after they asked for a gender-neutral dressing room when the show played in Los Angeles.

To date, Hamilton representatives have publicly disputed Reid’s complaints and say that the performer was offered a contract “with terms responsive to their requests” and that the production has “not discriminated or retaliated against Suni.”

Unlike Kimball, who filed a lawsuit in New York State court, Reid filed their claim initially with the EEOC in Los Angeles.  Such a filing is a requirement before bringing a lawsuit in court if one is alleging  federal discrimination claims such as violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers discrimination based on sex and gender applicable to Reid’s claims.  By not alleging federal Title VII claims, but only local law violations, Kimball was able to skip the administrative requirement of first filing his claim with the EEOC and go directly to state court.

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Research contributed by Isabelle Kern.