British Columbia

Media exec sues B.C. company for $10M claiming discrimination

Krysanne Katsoolis claims several men at Liquid Media Group insulted and belittled her before cutting her out of business talks — effectively "neutering" her from doing her job as CEO.

‘I was absolutely both personally and professionally shattered’

Krysanne Katsoolis pictured during a Skype phone call in late November. The media executive is suing a Vancouver-based company and three of its board members, claiming they discriminated against her during her time as CEO. (CBC)

An entertainment executive is suing the Vancouver-based production studio she says she dedicated years of her life to build, claiming the men who once sat with her on the board discriminated against her, attacked her reputation and eventually pushed her out of the company.

In a lawsuit filed in New York District Court, Krysanne Katsoolis claims Daniel Cruz, Charles Brezer and other men at Liquid Media Group defamed, insulted and belittled her before cutting her out of business talks — effectively "neutering" her from doing her job as CEO — until forcing her resignation just before the company went public.

She also claims she hasn't been paid for months of work or $1 million in severance.

"It's a sick feeling," said Katsoolis on a phone call from her home in New York City, where she's spent her entire career.  

"I was absolutely both personally and professionally shattered."

Katsoolis is suing the company, Cruz, Brezer and Joshua Jackson — the company chairman — for around $10 million in damages.

The suit casts an unflattering portrait of Jackson, a Hollywood actor known for his role in the 1990s TV show Dawson's Creek. He's also chairman at Liquid.

At one point, Katsoolis claims she flew to L.A., asking Jackson to intervene on her behalf, but her complaint says the actor refused to meet her about it.

Joshua Jackson, who was born in Vancouver, is an actor and chairman of Liquid Media Group. Katsoolis's lawsuit claims Jackson ignored her when she went to him about the hostility she says she experienced during her last months as company CEO. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

In her complaint, Katsoolis, 53, said the behaviour encapsulates the resistance women in the entertainment industry — and business in general — can run up against doing their jobs.

"I think it's an important case for me to take forward for me and for anyone else that comes behind me."

Family 'brainchild'

Katsoolis' 25 years in the entertainment industry have been spent largely in acquisitions, according to the complaint.

Her brother-in-law co-founded Liquid as a startup in 2013. He brought Katsoolis on board as CEO and they shared a vision of building the company into a powerhouse public venture centred in New York and Vancouver.

Krysanne Katsoolis in an undated photo. (Supplied)

"It was my family's brainchild," said Katsoolis of the company, which is headquartered in Vancouver and produces content for film, TV, gaming, and virtual reality platforms.

Katsoolis says she worked from New York from the start, keeping in touch with Cruz, Brezer and Jackson by email, phone, text and BlackBerry messenger.

Cruz and Brezer live in B.C. and Jackson is in Los Angeles. Katsoolis was the only woman on the board and the only one in New York.

Her complaint cites "intimidating and hostile" behaviour — and a "barrage of derogatory, harassing and passive-aggressive" messages — from her colleagues beginning in 2017.

The worst of it, Katsoolis said in the lawsuit, came on April 6.

She claims Cruz — company director at the time — told a shareholder Katsoolis had "gone rogue" and was having a "suspicious … love affair" with someone on the other end of a business deal.

Isolated and 'ignored': complaint says

In December — a "pivotal point" for the company as they geared up to hit the NASDAQ — Katsoolis said in her complaint, the men started to cut her out of business emails, texts and phone calls.

Shareholders, financiers and lawyers would call her with questions on new developments, and she'd be in the dark.

The website for Liquid Media Group lists its location as 33 West Eighth Avenue in Vancouver, B.C., but there's no sign of the company from the exterior. (CBC)

Katsoolis said she went to Jackson, the chariman, to tell him about the hostility.

"He ignored the texts. He ignored my calls. I went to LA to try to meet with him [and] he ignored me," she said.

In December, Katsoolis said she went to Jackson to ask for office space. She'd been working for Liquid at home and in cafés — but that became awkward as the company grew.

"I was saying, 'I'm trying to do multi-million dollar deals out of Starbucks,' said Katsoolis.

She claims Jackson asked her to choose between an office or a salary.

Katsoolis's complaint said that conversation came shortly after Liquid agreed to finance an office for a male executive in Los Angeles.

'Termination of Krysanne'

Katsoolis' claims the men started planning to fire her during a meeting in late March. On May 23, Brezer emailed Katsoolis asking her to approve a draft of a news release announcing her resignation.

The document had been saved as "Termination of Krysanne."

Liquid announced Katsoolis had "stepped down" as CEO in a news release on May 28.

Katsoolis says Brezer emailed her asking her to approve this draft of a news release announcing her resignation on May 23, 2017. The document had been saved as "Termination of Krysanne." (U.S. District Court Southern District of New York/Submitted)

She says she resigned her seat on the board two months later, saying it had become impossible for her to do her job.

"You build the company up. You spend years of your life, day and night, 24/7, building a company and then have people like that really try to push you out ... I can't even begin to tell you [how that feels]," she said.

Katsoolis filed her lawsuit in late October, claiming around $1.4 million for unpaid wages, as well as severance for termination without "just and sufficient cause."

She's also claiming $9 million in punitive damages in relation to the defamation and "hostile" behaviour.

You spend years of your life, day and night, 24/7, building a company and then have people like that really try to push you out ... I can't even begin to tell you [how that feels]- Krysanne Katsoolis

None of the defendants replied to CBC's request for comment, but their joint lawyer filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed on grounds that the New York District Court doesn't have jurisdiction to hear the case.

In a letter filed in court, Craig Weiner said there are also insufficient facts to support one of Katsoolis' claims and that her allegations don't justify suing the men as individuals, rather than the company.

Katsoolis said she and her attorney, Ryan Long, tried to resolve the dispute out of court earlier this year but couldn't reach a resolution.

"It was really infuriating, to the point where I had to take this action," she said.

"It's something I haven't done in my 25 years of being in the business. So, that gives you an idea of how serious I really thought this is."

About the Author

Rhianna Schmunk is a staff writer for CBC News. She is based in Vancouver with a focus on justice and the courts. You can reach her on Twitter @rhiannaschmunk or by email at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.