Erin Johnson, chief communications officer at WPP’s J. Walter Thompson, scored a major victory today in her sex harassment and retaliation lawsuit against the agency, the holding company and former JWT global CEO Gustavo Martinez.
The judge hearing the case — J. Paul Oetken of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan — tossed motions to dismiss the case by WPP and JWT and separately by Martinez.
Johnson filed suit in March, charging her then-boss Martinez with sexual harassment and routinely making racist and sexist slurs within the agency’s offices and other public venues in front of numerous witnesses and even on tape.
(Martinex resigned under pressure within a week of the suit’s filing.)
She also charged Martinez and the agency with retaliation for cutting her pay and reducing her responsibilities.
Johnson returned to work in early November and within a week filed a request to Judge Oetken for a conference to discuss a preliminary injunction to prevent the alleged retaliation from continuing. Johnson alleged that the retaliation had “escalated” upon her return to work.
In a decision released today, Judge Oetken ruled Johnson had made enough of a case concerning Martinez’s actions toward her, as well as for the retaliation claims to survive a summary dismissal motion.
“Considering the alleged conduct in context, Johnson has pleaded enough to support a plausible inference that an objectively hostile work environment existed,” Oetken wrote.
Oetken also ruled that Martinez was personally liable under the laws Johnson alleged he violated and that “in the context of Johnson’s collective allegations, Martinez’s repeated references to sex and rape — both coupled with and divorced from physical or physically intimidating conduct — reveal a gendered component of the conduct, sometimes rising to the level of explicit gender animus.”
"In threatening to 'rape' Johnson (even jokingly) and asking which other female employees he could rape, Martinez asserted power over Johnson in an explicitly sexualized and gendered form."
Oetken said he took into account "Martinez’s repeatedly touching Johnson (including grabbing her by the neck and shoving her, as well as taking her apple from her hand, taking a bite, and returning it) as part of a broader effort to intimidate her physically because of her sex.
"Through both his words and his actions, even if not overtly sexual, Martinez allegedly exhibited hostility toward the idea of women exercising power in the workplace," the judge added.
He noted the former CEO’s references to Johnson being "bossy" as "invoking a double standard for men’s and women’s leadership in the workplace." Martinez’s comments and actions collectively, the Judge added, "can be read as a 'power play ,' some mix of 'sex-based animus' and 'misdirected sexual desire' that aimed to undermine Johnson’s status at JWT because of her sex."
Oetken added that Martinez’s actions toward Johnson "can be read as a campaign to assert power over Johnson — to sexualize her, to demean her, to professionally diminish her, and to deprive her of bodily security — because of her sex."
Defendants have until Jan. 3, 2017 to file answers to Johnson’s complaint. Oetken also scheduled a conference for December 22 to address Johnson’s request for an injunction as well a management plan for the case going forward.