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Trial begins in Fox29 anchor's 'N-word' lawsuit

Victim of workplace double standard or his own poor judgment? A jury will be faced with that question as a race-discrimination lawsuit filed by former Fox29 anchorman Tom Burlington opens Monday at U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

Victim of workplace double standard or his own poor judgment?

A jury is faced with that question as a race-discrimination lawsuit filed by former Fox29 anchorman Tom Burlington began today at U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

Burlington, who is white, contends the station fired him after he uttered the "n-word," while African American employees were not disciplined for using the same word.

In his lawsuit, Burlington said he had been unable to find work as a TV newscaster because of his termination and the subsequent publicity. He is seeking unspecified damages. A court filing contends that he lost nearly $3 million in past and future earnings.

Burlington took the stand this afternoon before the all-white jury.

Fox29 attorneys at Dechert LLP did not return calls for comment on Friday. In court papers filed last month, they asserted there was no evidence that race played a role in the decision to end Burlington's contract. They attributed his firing to "his admitted misconduct, his poor judgment, the upset it caused in the newsroom, and the resulting negative publicity."

Burlington, who now works as a real estate agent on the Main Line, admits to saying the word in June 2007 as reporters and editors reviewed a story about the symbolic burial of the racial epithet by the Philadelphia Youth Council of the NAACP. During the council's mock funeral, covered by a Fox29 reporter, participants used the word at least 100 times.

It was during the discussion that Burlington, scheduled to anchor the evening broadcast, asked the question: "Does this mean we can finally say the word n-----?"

Nicole Wolfe, one of three African American employees at the meeting, exclaimed "I can't believe you just said that!"

Burlington explained that by using "the n-word" rather than the word itself, the reporter gave the racial epithet more power. The group made a decision not to use the word on the broadcast that night, and Burlington apologized to Wolfe, according to his lawsuit.

An hour later, a report of the incident made its way to Burlington's coanchor, Joyce Evans, who is black.

Evans, who did not attend the staff meeting, confronted Burlington.

According to Burlington's suit, Evans delivered a stern rebuke, saying "Because you're white, you can never understand what it's like to be called a n-----, and ... you cannot use the word n-----."

Evans has denied using the word in her conversation with Burlington, according to court papers filed in response to the lawsuit. Her alleged use of the word will not be allowed during trial because Burlington did not complain about it in his suit, according to a May 27 memo written by U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick.

Burlington contends that after the encounter, Evans orchestrated a behind-the-scenes campaign to have him terminated.

In his suit, Burlington paints Fox29 as operating on a race-based double standard in allowing African Americans to say the word but not whites. In court papers, Burlington's attorney wrote that former anchor David Huddleston, who is black, used the n-word in a meeting to describe a criminal defendant; Huddleston suffered no consequences.

Fox29 attorneys sought to bar the Huddleston incident from trial. Surrick denied their motion.

"Huddleston's comments were arguably more offensive than Plaintiff's, and yet his coworkers simply laughed and did not report them to management," Surrick wrote in the May 27 memo. "A jury should be allowed to assess whether Plaintiff's race accounts for the difference."

Surrick wrote that he also will allow evidence about a prior discrimination suit filed by another former white anchorman against the Fox29.

Rich Noonan anchored the evening news at the station for most of the 1990s. After Evans allegedly complained that the news team was "too white," Noonan's contract was not renewed and he was replaced by Huddleston. The station eventually settled with Noonan for an undisclosed sum.

Burlington's attorney, Laura Mattiacci, declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

"We're very much looking forward to going to trial," she said.

215-854-2796 @samwoodiii