By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK, Jan 5 (Reuters) – Viacom Inc was sued by a former vice president who said the media company fired her in retaliation for opposing its alleged plan to illegally avoid paying U.S. taxes on the international licensing rights for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
In a complaint filed on Tuesday in Manhattan federal court, Nataki Williams said she was fired in April 2014 while on maternity leave, after Viacom ignored her objections to its plan the prior year to transfer Ninja Turtles rights to a Netherlands-based entity solely to avoid the U.S. tax burden.
Williams said the licensing work was handled in New York, but Viacom arranged for minor work to be done in the Netherlands to make it appear as though the contracts were handled there.
The Irvington, New Jersey resident also said Viacom planned for the Netherlands entity to buy rights to other children’s characters like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants, in a scheme that her bosses allegedly said could save millions of dollars.
Williams said she was fired as vice president for financial planning and analysis, ending more than six years of employment at Viacom, on the pretext that her benefits paperwork wrongly listed her child’s father, also named Williams, as a spouse.
She said Viacom caused the error, and that she held herself out as single.
“Ms. Williams was actually fired in retaliation for her internal whistleblowing of an unlawful tax avoidance scheme that would have saved Viacom millions, and that Ms. Williams reasonably believed was fraudulent,” the complaint said.
In a statement, Viacom said Williams was fired for “fraudulently claiming company benefits to which she was not entitled. Her legal claims are completely without merit, and we will vigorously defend against these claims in court.”
The New York-based company’s brands include Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures and VH1, among others.
Williams sued under the federal Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank laws. She is seeking reinstatement and back pay, as well as additional pay if she is not reinstated.
The plaintiff “experienced hostility when she opposed this proposed tax dodge, and was subjected to a transparently trumped up reason for her firing,” her lawyer Jason Rozger said in an interview. “That suggests the real reason she was fired was in retaliation for opposing something harmful to taxpayers and the company.”
The case is Williams v. Viacom International Media Networks Inc, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-00029.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernard Orr)