Woman who called police on Black bird-watcher faces skeptical court in employment appeal

FILE PHOTO: People row boats past the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in New York City

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday appeared unlikely to reinstate a lawsuit by Amy Cooper, the white woman who called police on a Black bird-watcher in New York City's Central Park, accusing her former employer of illegally firing and defaming her.

Judges of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan expressed skepticism after Cooper's lawyer said Franklin Templeton's statements following the May 25, 2020, viral video incident suggested the company had "facts unknown to the public" to justify terminating Cooper and branding her a racist.

"I've got to admit, the film is an eye-popper," Circuit Judge Barrington Parker, part of a three-judge panel, told Cooper's lawyer Matthew Litt.

He said Franklin Templeton might have worried about people seeing Cooper, a former insurance portfolio manager, display bad judgment and a short temper. "Why would you want to keep her on your payroll?" he asked.

Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler suggested the video spoke for itself, asking: "What more would you have had them do?"

Litt said Franklin Templeton crossed a line. "This was not about race until social media and the defendants made it about race," he said.

In the video, Cooper confronted bird-watcher Christian Cooper, who is not related, and said she would tell police "there's an African-American man threatening my life" after he asked her to leash her dog to comply with park rules.

The video was taken the same day a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, sparking nationwide protests about racial injustice. Critics labeled Cooper "Central Park Karen," using a pejorative for an entitled white woman.

Franklin Templeton, part of San Mateo, California-based Franklin Resources Inc, said on May 26, 2020, it fired Cooper following an internal review and that "we do not tolerate racism of any kind."

Its lawyer Bryan Killian told the appeals court it was unreasonable to see the company's statements as "anything other than a response to the video."

The court did not say when it will rule. Cooper was appealing U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams' dismissal of her case last September.

The case is Cooper v Franklin Templeton Investments et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-2763.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis)