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Former Disney archivist alleges retaliation in firing

February 27, 2013|By Dawn C. Chmielewski
  • A former Disney archivist, who worked with costumes and props from such classic films as "Mary Poppins," has filed a civil suit against the company.
A former Disney archivist, who worked with costumes and props from such… (Disney )

A former Walt Disney Co. archivist is suing the Burbank company, claiming the entertainment giant fired him in alleged retaliation for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.

Robert Klein, 41, filed an unlawful retaliation suit Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, seeking damages in excess of $75,000 for lost wages and benefits. He alleges, in court documents, that he was a casualty in Disney's "attempt to cover up sexual harassment at the company." 

"Disney's retaliatory actions have blackballed Klein in the archiving community ... and have destroyed his otherwise impeccable career and reputation," the suit alleges.

A Disney spokeswoman said the lawsuit is "absolutely without merit."

When Klein joined Disney in 2007, he said in an interview that he considered it a "dream come true." A Southern California native, he visited Disneyland three times a year as a child and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in film from the California Institute of the Arts -- a school Walt Disney helped establish. His roommate was director Mark Andrews, who collected an Academy Award on Sunday for Pixar Animation Studios' "Brave."

After graduating, he worked for Aaron Spelling Productions, and directors Ron Howard and Rob Reiner, Klein said in an email response to questions. "Though my goals were always to one day work for Disney."

As a Disney archivist, Klein said he cataloged 6,000 pieces of historical wardrobe items that had gone unidentified for decades. He wrote historical articles, restored artifacts and tracked down iconic Disney props long discarded by the company from outside sources, including the Mary Poppins carpetbag, which had been outside of the company’s possession since the 1960s, after it was given away in a sweepstakes promotional campaign, he said.

Klein said he curated the Walt Disney Archives exhibits in 2009 and 2011 during the company's D23 fan expo in Anaheim.

Two weeks before the start of the 2011 convention, one of Klein's male subordinates reported that he had been subjected to sexual harassment by a female Disney employee, according to the civil suit. The lawsuit alleges the woman invited him to stay in her hotel room during the D23 Expo.

According to court documents, the archivist sought the advice of Disney's human resources department before the start of the convention, and followed up afterward. He later received another complaint from the man, he said in the lawsuit, about another alleged episode of harassment.

Klein urged the man to report the matter to another manager, and then spoke with Disney's human resources department about the employee's complaint, according to the suit. He was interviewed twice over the course of the investigation. 

The complaint alleges that human resources asked Klein whether he knew of any prior sexual relationship between the two employees. Klein said, in the court filing, that he had been unaware of any personal history between the two people, although the man told Disney that he had a "brief relationship" with the woman before joining the company.

When Klein arrived for work Sept. 6, 2011, he was met outside of his office by archives director Becky Cline and a human resources manager -- who fired him, according to the complaint.

"I was abruptly told that I was discharged," Klein told The Times. "I was shocked, and felt betrayed. I immediately believed that there must be a mistake considering that my boss was in tears, and that I had merely passed on a complaint to HR from one of my direct reports. To this day, I still cannot believe what happened."

In court filings, Klein said he learned that he had been fired for failing to fill out the paperwork correctly when the man was hired, and for allegedly lying during the human resources investigation. Human resources asserted that Klein had known about the prior relationship, according to court documents, even though the suit maintains such knowledge would be "irrelevant."

"Hundreds, if not thousands, of Disney employees have either engaged in romantic relationships before or after coming to Disney and continue to do so until this day," the suit alleges. "There would be no incentive for [Klein] to 'lie' about knowledge of a preexisting relationship."

The man and woman involved in the alleged sexual harassment incident also were dismissed, according to the suit.

Disney allegedly advised its employees to disassociate themselves with Klein and "unfriend" him on Facebook, according to the suit. The company also refused to provide him with positive job references, and rejected his request to rejoin the company, placing him on the "no re-hire" list, the complaint alleges.

"My dismissal had nothing to do with my performance as an archivist and as a spokesperson for the company’s history, but it has never been explained, leading people in and out of the company to speculate on why I was fired so abruptly," Klein said by email. "What I did is reported sexual harassment as the company’s handbook (and federal law) requires, and I was then the recipient of retaliation from the company."

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