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NY Post must face bias lawsuit linked to Obama chimp cartoon

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Post and its top editor must face a bias lawsuit brought by a woman who said she was fired for complaining about harassment at the newspaper and a political cartoon that some people said likened President Barack Obama to a chimpanzee.

In a decision made public on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lorna Schofield said Sandra Guzman, a former associate editor, may pursue her case against the Post and Editor-in-Chief Col Allan, though not against the newspaper's parent, News Corp.

Schofield said Guzman provided "evidence of a sexually charged environment at the Post, permeating the newsroom, meetings and holiday parties," and that her complaints were rebuffed.

She said Guzman, who is black and Puerto Rican, offered sufficient evidence that she faced "severe or pervasive harassment" based on her race and national origin, and might have kept her job but for objecting to a cartoon published on February 18, 2009, that criticized a government stimulus package.

Schofield did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit.

The cartoon showed two befuddled-looking policemen standing over a chimpanzee that had been shot, two days after a similar incident in Stamford, Connecticut.

One police officer in the cartoon said: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." Some people said the animal was meant to depict Obama. News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch later apologized to readers.

A spokeswoman for the Post said in an email: "We are pleased that the claims against News Corp were thrown out. We look forward to presenting the truth about the remaining charges -- which are completely unfounded -- to a jury."

NEWSPAPER CALLED ALLEGATIONS 'TRIVIAL'

Guzman, who sued in November 2009, two months after being fired, accused former colleagues of making frequent improper comments, including calling her "Cha Cha #1," singing "I want to live in America" from the musical "West Side Story" with a Spanish accent, or calling female staff a "harem."

She also accused Allan of engaging in improper activity, including sexualized behavior at a party, and expressing disapproval at a meeting of a female editor's story list by saying, "It's hard to teach old bitches new tricks."

The defendants contended that Guzman was fired because the newspaper had closed its money-losing Tempo monthly, where she had worked, and that no other jobs were available for her.

They said her claims of a hostile work environment were based on "trivial" incidents and could not be supported by a cartoon that was protected speech under the First Amendment.

OPEN QUESTIONS

In dismissing Guzman's claims against News Corp itself, Schofield said she had not shown that the company and the Post were one and the same for purposes of her employment.

But the judge said there was an open question as to whether Guzman was fired because Tempo failed, and that evidence showed she could have been moved to an open, albeit lower-paying, job.

She said Allan should remain a defendant because he had decision-making authority, and there was sufficient evidence to suggest that his alleged comments and behavior "ostensibly contributed" to a hostile work environment.

Douglas Wigdor, a partner at the law firm Thompson Wigdor representing Guzman, said: "We're very pleased with the decision, and that Ms. Guzman will be able to hold the New York Post and Col Allan responsible for their discriminatory actions at trial."

The case is Guzman v News Corp et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 09-09323.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Eddie Evans and Leslie Adler)

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