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Former Fargo woman sues Weather Channel

Nicole Mitchell, a former Weather Channel anchor, is suing the company for military discrimination. A Fargo native, Mitchell's contract was not renewed in 2010, and the Air Force reserve officer claims she was fired because of time she took off for military duty. Photo special to The Forum

ATLANTA - While she's flown through hurricanes before, a former Weather Channel anchor is in the middle of a massive legal storm as she sues the company, claiming she was fired because of her military status.

Nicole Mitchell, originally from the Fargo-Moorhead area, said in an interview with The Forum that her contract with The Weather Channel was not renewed in 2010 because the company's new management didn't want to contend with hours she needed to take off as an Air Force Reserve officer and "hurricane hunter."

Mitchell's accusation is that The Weather Channel and its parent companies violated her rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA).

Trouble first began for the Air Force Reserve captain in 2008, when The Weather Channel was purchased by NBC Universal, the Blackstone Group and Bain Capital.

Mitchell, 37, said she first became uncomfortable during a line of questioning from new management that focused on her commitment in the Reserves, not her seven years as an on-air meteorologist.

Matters only got worse, by her telling. In March 2010, a few days prior to one of her weekend Air Force engagements, Mitchell said she was told she needed to be at a hair consultation, which was in direct conflict with her military commitment.

The anchor said her time off was on the schedule since July or August, and she had no other choice but to tell management she couldn't make the consultation.

"It was a loyalty test," Mitchell said. "They told me to jump, and I didn't jump."

She said it became clear when this happened a second time with a makeup consultation that her choice was not appreciated by new management.

In an interview with Fox News last month, Mitchell said, "I was told in an email, 'Before you agree to military duty, you need to clear it through us first.'"

"If you don't show up for orders, you could be court-martialed," she told Fox.

After meeting with human resources in December 2010, the former anchor said she was shell shocked to learn her contract would not be renewed.

"I asked the woman, what could I have done differently," Mitchell said. "She told me that I didn't do anything wrong, that this was a business decision."

This is the only answer the 20-year Reserve officer received about her termination. Looking back, the only complaint she knew about was her military work.

"What other inference could I make? This was the only area they have ever expressed issue with," she said.

In a statement, The Weather Channel said it doesn't comment on pending litigation but that, "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 is committed to creating a work atmosphere free of discrimination and in compliance with (USERRA)," the statement said.

Now, embattled in a lawsuit that required six months to select an arbitrator, Mitchell said she realizes the difficulties of pursuing legal action for military discrimination.

"As my case moved forward, I at least had some resources to continue," Mitchell said. "But I've heard how a lot of people can give up because they don't have the documentation or they can't fight it as they're receiving severance."

And Mitchell's case is not alone. In the U.S., USERRA violations are on an upward trend, a Department of Labor report shows. In 2010, 1,438 new cases were reported, which averages to more than three a day. Mitchell said this number is underreported because most cases are filed civilly, which the government doesn't track.

A report is made about every month in North Dakota, said Kevin Iverson, who works with the Employee Support of North Dakota Guard and Reserve.

When Employee Support receives a USERRA violation case, it is given an "ombudsman," or middle-man, who mediates the situation and determines if the conflict is because of the employee's military work or because of an unrelated issue.

If a case is filed with the Department of Labor, Iverson said Employee Support doesn't have a responsibility to step in.

Protection is what's lacking by USERRA, said Ben Brown, formally a member of the North Dakota Air Guard. The 24-year-old claims he allegedly encountered harassment at Progressive Living Solutions in Alexandria, Minn., because of time he asked off for training, and that he contacted USERRA for help but received little protection.

"USERRA called my employer and chewed them out about it, but the harassment continued until I decided to quit on my own," Brown said.

The Forum contacted Progressive Living Solutions, and while they said they were contacted by USERRA, they refuted all allegations of harassment about Brown's Guard duties. They said Brown had quit because he needed more time for his studies, according to an email he had sent them.

Not all civilian employers are critical of military duty, said Lt. Dan Sly of the North Dakota Air Force National Guard. An employee of Microsoft for the past six years, Sly said his employers have not only been supportive, but "overly accommodating to all of their current and past military members."

"They offer us paid leave, and they recently let us start up a veterans group with funding to host awareness events," Sly said.

Sly calls himself lucky to be in a supportive environment, because he said this is an issue he hears about from other military members.

Awareness of this conflict is what drove Mitchell to make her lawsuit public. She said she has little to gain personally by exposing her case, but there needs to be more attention put on military discrimination in the workforce.

"More employers are failing to follow the law and support Guard and reserve members, and the system that should protect them has some significant deficiencies," Mitchell said. "That means the Guard and reservists have to make the tough choice sometimes between serving their country or keeping the job that feeds their family."

"People should not be put in this position," she said.