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Running a Nashville Studio with His Famous Wife, This Bad Boss Hit a Series of Wrong Notes

Country music star Martina McBride and her husband John founded Blackbird Studio, a recording facility in Nashville, Tenn., in 2002. Along with Ms. McBride herself, Blackbird’s high-profile clients have ranged from Adele to the Zac Brown Band.

In 2012 Mr. McBride hired Richard Hanson as Blackbird’s operations manager, a job that grew to include oversight of assistant engineers and unpaid interns. According to documents filed in a subsequent lawsuit, Mr. Hanson quickly became concerned that some studio staff weren’t being paid properly for overtime hours — and that interns weren’t getting any educational benefit from menial chores set by Mr. McBride, who ran the facility.

Among other duties, according to court documents, interns had to clean toilets, pick up groceries and lottery tickets for the McBride family, and buy a endless stream of phone chargers for Mr. McBride, who kept breaking them. Both McBrides would publicly “yell at, scold and chastise” interns when a chore wasn’t done to their liking, according to Mr. Hanson’s complaint.

Plus there was the time an intern was asked to prowl around the McBrides’ home with a gun, the lawsuit said.

On several occasions Mr. Hanson informed Mr. McBride that Blackbird might be violating federal labor laws, according to testimony. Things came to a head, Mr. Hanson told the court, when an intern was unfairly blamed for failing to deliver lunch to Ms. McBride at her home. Frustrated, Mr. Hanson contacted the U.S. Department of Labor to see if Blackbird’s practices were legal.

Upon learning of Mr. Hanson’s inquiry, Mr. McBride fired him on the spot. “I’m f***ing done with you,” a court order quotes him as saying. “Get your s*** and get the f*** out of my studio.”

John McBride is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.

Mr. Hanson filed a complaint against the McBrides and Blackbird, claiming illegal retaliation for his good-faith concerns about labor practices. Ms. McBride, the singer, was dismissed as an individual defendant — but early in 2020 a federal jury found her husband and Blackbird liable for about $160,000 in damages.

This month the trial judge awarded Mr. Hanson a further $200,000 to cover attorney fees and interest. Because Mr. McBride fired his employee for an improper reason, the judge wrote in her order, he had himself to blame for “numerous sensitive and embarrassing facts [being] brought to light in a public forum.”

Though his background was in sound engineering, Rich Hanson had never really fit into the Blackbird scene. He was popular with clients and won praise for “his technical abilities and being able to make things happen the way they were supposed to,” the studio’s manager testified, but he also wore people out — including Mr. McBride, the owner — with incessant critiques.

“There were many times where I asked him to calm down, or to chill, or to take a deep breath,” Mr. Hanson’s superior Rolff Zwiep said in a deposition, “and he didn’t even hear me. He would just talk over me.”

Mr. Hanson was especially focused on overtime issues and the treatment of Blackbird’s unpaid interns, who complained in court filings that they were regarded, in essence, as cleaners and personal servants to the McBrides.

One recent college graduate, for instance, wrote that he never received “any sort of training/advice on music recording” during his Blackbird internship, “which was the entire reason I was there in the first place.” Instead, he wrote, he was asked to dust, do food runs, and to pack up equipment and clean toilets after late-night sessions.

Another intern wrote that, in addition to scrubbing toilets, he would mop, vacuum, and do dishes in a shift that ran from 6:00pm to 6:00am. A graduate of audio engineering school, he often ended up taking orders from the McBrides’ young daughters, who would call Blackbird requesting candy — which the intern said he had to buy and deliver to the family home.

“Learning was not a large part of my internship,” he wrote, “but … I can clean your toilet so well you could eat off of it.” When this intern sought employment in Nashville afterward, he said, he was “laughed off the phone” and told that Blackbird “only produces talented cleaners.” Four years later he was waiting tables.

The gun incident happened one night when both McBrides were out of town, according to testimony and court documents, and a sitter was minding two McBride daughters. Believing there was an intruder, one of the daughters had called Mr. McBride — who, rather than contacting police, called Blackbird at 1:30am and asked for an intern to check it out.

(In a deposition, Mr. McBride acknowledged the request and said he frequently asked Blackbird staff to check the security of his home, involving interns “probably three or four times.”)

Two interns and an assistant engineer arrived at the house, where the worried sitter declined to call the police, asked the Blackbird people to secure the house, and gave them a loaded gun, according to court documents. As the only person familiar with firearms, one of the interns took the weapon and led a search of the property. There was no sign of an intruder, but the sitter remained uneasy and took the McBride girls elsewhere to sleep, according to a witness’ summary.

The intern later wrote to Mr. Hanson that he knew he’d sometimes have to “perform some less than desirable tasks” — but that risking personal harm “went so far beyond what I signed up for,” according to an e-mail filed with the court.

Mr. Hanson’s breaking point came in June 2017, the day Ms. McBride didn’t get her lunch fast enough.

An intern had been told to pick up food from The Tavern, a local eatery, and deliver it to the country singer at home. When the star didn’t have her food an hour later, Mr. Hanson recalled in a deposition, her husband became “very angry … and he demanded that [a second intern] go back to the restaurant and pick up another order.”

Mr. Hanson knew the food had been delivered: The first intern already had reported back to Blackbird with the receipt, he testified. It turned out that Ava, the McBrides’ youngest daughter, had accepted the food but forgotten to tell her mom.

In his deposition, Mr. McBride conceded that his daughter “may have had something to do with it,” but still faulted Mr. Hanson for being wound so tight. “A negative attitude is not a good thing to have in a recording studio,” Mr. McBride testified. “It’s a creative environment where … the vibe is very important.”

Steamed at “the accumulation of all the things … over my course of employment,” Mr. Hanson logged onto the Department of Labor’s Web site and filled out a form to report that his employer was “using unpaid interns in a manner that wasn’t appropriate, and also was not paying certain staff members overtime that they were due,” he said in a deposition.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Hanson told Mr. Zwiep what he had done — and Mr. Zwiep promptly informed Mr. McBride. According to court documents, Mr. McBride called Mr. Hanson and lit into him: “I hear you have a f***ing problem and you’re going to call the Better Business Bureau [sic] or some f***ing s***.”

When Mr. Hanson corrected him, saying he had already contacted the Department of Labor, Mr. McBride fired him.

In a deposition, Mr. McBride testified that “the straw that broke the camel’s back was the lunchtime fiasco” — but claimed he didn’t fire Mr. Hanson because of the DOL report. In fact, he said, he already had made plans to fire Mr. Hanson and was waiting only for his intended replacement to return from a European honeymoon.

Mr. Hanson’s firing didn’t stop the DOL investigation that he had triggered, which ultimately found ten separate overtime violations at Blackbird. Mr. McBride agreed to pay staff members more than $40,000 in back wages and damages.

The Blackbird internship program, however, didn’t draw any sanction. Although the interns were unpaid, the DOL said, they got some experience and received educational credit as agreed. The youngsters were “the primary beneficiaries of the relationship,” the investigator concluded.

» Read Mr. Hanson’s complaint in the case

» Read e-mails from interns describing their experience at Blackbird (some information redacted)

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Hanson v. McBride. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Mr. Hanson was represented by Morgan & Morgan, P.A..

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