Woman in NYC Bird-Watcher Case Sues Franklin Templeton in Firing

Franklin Templeton characterized a former employee as “racist” for calling the police on a Black birdwatcher whom she had words with while walking her dog in Central Park, publicized the incident on Twitter, and falsely claimed it conducted an investigation before firing her, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan.

Amy Cooper said the May 25, 2020, incident was spurred by her fear of the birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, who she says had a history of “aggressively confronting” dog owners for walking their dogs off-leash. He similarly initiated the dispute with her in the same aggressive manner while she was walking her dog alone, causing her “to reasonably fear” for the safety of her and her pet, Cooper said.

That’s why she called the police, Cooper told the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in a Tuesday complaint. Franklin Templeton would have known that if had performed the investigation it told the public it had conducted, she said.

“We believe the circumstances of the situation speak for themselves and that the Company responded appropriately,” Franklin Templeton told Bloomberg Law on Wednesday in an email. “We will defend against these baseless claims.”

The company didn’t really look into the incident before firing Cooper the following day, just shy of five years after she was hired, the suit said.

It only interviewed her in the immediate aftermath, when she was still “palpably distraught and fearful of her safety,” Cooper said. And it never spoke or tried to speak with Christian Cooper or any of the other dogwalkers he had previously accosted, she said.

That includes a Black man who issued a statement to the media May 26, 2020, stating that he too feared Christian Cooper “because of his body language and screaming” when confronting him while he was walking his dog off-leash in the park, the suit said.

Nor did Franklin Templeton seek the minutes of New York City Park Board meetings predating Christian Cooper’s attack on her that would have detailed his prior aggression towards dog owners and his statement to the board that “it has gotten ugly between birders and unleashed dog walkers,” Cooper said.

It also never tried to obtain the full versions of her 911 calls to the New York City Police Department, Cooper said. The company instead broadcast her firing on Twitter in terms that implied she is a racist, Cooper said.

And CEO Jenny Johnson gave widely viewed interviews to multiple media outlets that suggested Franklin Templeton had done a full and fair investigation and that the facts of the incident were undisputed, the suit said.

The publicity caused the incident to become “international news as a racial flashpoint” in which she was misportrayed as a privileged White woman, Cooper said.

That, in turn, spurred “countless phone calls” and text messages from people who sought to threaten and harass Cooper, the suit said. Some of those people got Cooper’s personal phone number from Franklin Templeton’s phone system, according to the suit.

She has suffered extreme emotional distress as a result and her “personal and professional life has been destroyed,” Cooper said.

Franklin Templeton would have conducted a proper investigation before firing her if she was of a different race or a different gender, Cooper said.

She pointed to a man who she said was incarcerated for two months for slamming his wife’s head into a stove yet was still named to the company board of directors despite knowledge of his conviction.

The suit also named Franklin Templeton Investments, Franklin Templeton Resources Inc., Johnson, and various unnamed parties as defendants.

Causes of Action: 42 U.S.C. §1981; New York State Human Rights Law; New York City Human Rights Law; defamation; negligence; intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Relief: Back pay and lost bonus; loss of unvested funds and other benefits; reinstatement or front pay; compensatory damages for emotional distress; punitive damages; attorneys’ fees and costs.

Attorneys: Andrea M. Paparella of Salem, Mass., and Matthew R. Litt of Bordentown, N.J., represent Cooper.

The case is Cooper v. Franklin Templeton, S.D.N.Y., No. 1:21-cv-04692, complaint filed 5/25/21.

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