MARIETTA — A former Weather Channel star is suing the Cobb-based channel and its new owners, claiming she was fired because of her military service.
Meteorologist Nicole Mitchell said Monday that her contract was not renewed in 2010 because the Weather Channel’s management didn’t want to deal with the time she took off to serve in the Air Force Reserves, where she is a captain and “Hurricane Hunter.” While the channel’s former management, Norfolk, Va.-based Landmark Communications, embraced her role in the military, featuring her weather-related duties on the air, she said that started to change when the Weather Channel was sold in 2008 to NBC Universal and two private equity firms, Bain Capital and the Blackstone Group.
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“I don’t think it was so much they were anti-military,” Mitchell said after a news conference Monday at her attorney’s office, a couple of miles from the Weather Channel’s headquarters. “But we were taken over by outside companies that weren’t internally managing, if that makes sense. And so they never got to know some of us. Our managers weren’t meteorologists anymore, so I think it was just easier for them to feel inconvenienced than to look at the benefits.”
The lawsuit states that in March 2009, NBC News Vice President Elena Nachmanoff called Mitchell in for a Sunday meeting with a “hair consultant,” even though Mitchell had a military service weekend scheduled for months. It claims that Nachmanoff was “perceptibly angry” that Mitchell didn’t come in. After Mitchell missed a second weekend assignment for “makeup consultation” in June 2009, she was removed from “Your Weather Today,” which she had been on for four years.
Mitchell’s contract with the Weather Channel was not renewed in 2010, which she says was a direct result of her military service, which is a violation of the 1994 Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination or retaliation against service members because of their military obligations.
“In our business, those contracts are just renewed time after time, as long as their happy with you as an employee,” she said. “Georgia is a right-to-work state, there’s no requirement to renew anyone’s contract. But, just like new management couldn’t come in and say, ‘We don’t really like black people, we’re not going to renew their contracts’ — you can’t do that, you can’t do it for discriminatory reason. So, for the same reason, you can’t say, ‘We’re not going to renew her because she’s in the military.’ ”
Along with her attorney — Lance LoRusso, known for his work as legal counsel for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police — Mitchell’s defenders Monday included representatives from the Reserve Officer’s Association.
Lynn Hogue, a retired Army lawyer who is now a law professor at Georgia State University, said no specific reasons were ever given for Mitchell’s dismissal.
“She had stellar evaluations,” he said. “What other inference could you possible draw than that the renewal was based on the inconvenience caused by her military service?”
Mitchell, who started with the Reserves 20 years ago just out of high school, said she filed the lawsuit not just for herself, but for those in the military who don’t have the same resources she does.
“It’s popular right now to say ‘We support the troops’ and ‘We’ve got your back,’ but if you’re going to say it, you should mean it. We need to make sure employers are doing the right thing, if not because it’s right, which is why you should do it, at the very least because it’s the law.”
While he didn’t say how much money they were seeking, LoRusso said that Mitchell is entitled to money she would have gotten had her contract been renewed, as well as attorney’s fees and expenses.
A Weather Channel statement said the company can’t comment on pending litigation, but that the channel and its owners are committed to creating an atmosphere in compliance with the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
“As with many situations, there is more than one version of what occurred,” the statement said. “We disagree with many of the assertions in the plaintiff’s press statements and intend to vigorously defend the matter in the arbitration process.”
The Weather Channel was started in Cobb County in 1982 and currently has 800 employees at its headquarters on Interstate North Parkway in the Cumberland area.
Bain has been under attack by President Barack Obama’s campaign recently because of its co-founder, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, while Obama himself attended a fundraiser last month in New York that was hosted by Blackstone’s chief operating officer.