Julie Roehm Files Suit Against Wal-Mart

Claims Retailer Broke Contract, Damaged Reputation

By Published on . 14

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Julie Roehm, the former Wal-Mart marketing executive whose December ouster caused a media firestorm, has filed a lawsuit against the retailer, claiming Wal-Mart breached her contract and smeared her in the press.
Julie Roehm
Photo: Scott Breithaupt
Julie Roehm is seeking financial damages, along with items she left in her office in Bentonville.
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At the center of the lawsuit is Ms. Roehm's allegation that Wal-Mart hasn't lived up to its end of the compensation deal she agreed to when she joined the company a year ago. That agreement, according to the documents, included base pay of $325,000, a signing bonus of $250,000, annual incentive-based payments and restricted stock worth up to $300,000. The lawsuit was filed without fanfare last month in state court in Michigan, where the former Chrysler executive keeps a residence, but it was transferred to federal court.

The dismissals of Ms. Roehm, senior VP-marketing communications, and Sean Womack, VP-communications architecture, caused a scandal that ended up dominating the ad industry's imagination for weeks and landed the saga on the front pages of Advertising Age and The Wall Street Journal. At that time, executives close to the company said the reasons for the dismissals had to do with ethical missteps during an ad account review that Ms. Roehm managed, as well as an "inappropriate relationship" between the two executives. Both executives have publicly denied those accusations.

'False and malicious statements'
As part of breach-of-contract and fraud claims, Ms. Roehm alleges that Wal-Mart "made false and malicious statements to the media." For its part, Wal-Mart hasn't given any reasons for the pair's dismissal. Its main statement was made when it decided to re-open the review, citing "new information" the company never detailed.

The seven-page complaint doesn't lay out exactly how much money Ms. Roehm is seeking to recover. It does say she was told she wouldn't receive any compensation since her Dec. 4, 2006, termination. According to the lawsuit, Ms. Roehm's employment agreement provides for "relocation benefits" including up to six mortgage payments and one year of base salary assuming she left the company "voluntarily." Ms. Roehm moved her husband and children from Michigan to Arkansas upon taking the Wal-Mart job.

Ms. Roehm says she was notified of her termination by Wal-Mart's chief financial officer "ostensibly because [she] 'hasn't been fulfilling the expectations of an officer of the company.'" But she claims Wal-Mart "provided no specific examples of any conduct ... which did not fulfill the expectations of an officer of the company, because no such conduct exists."

Not just financial damages
In addition to financial damages, Ms. Roehm is looking to retrieve items left in her office at the Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. She's demanding the return of her media exchange files, material from presentations and work she did prior to joining Wal-Mart, and copies of her Microsoft Outlook folders, including her personal contacts.

John Schaefer, an attorney for Ms. Roehm, said the next step is to meet with Wal-Mart's lawyers to try to reach a "reasonable compromise." A Wal-Mart spokesman didn't return calls seeking comment.

A response filed by Wal-Mart on Jan. 18 generally denies the claims, including any possession of electronic records. Wal-Mart, however, did say it has a few things of Ms. Roehm's, including a stepladder and paint supplies it has "invited [Ms. Roehm] to collect." Among the changes Ms. Roehm effected during her 11-month tenure at Wal-Mart: She painted her office.

Life after Wal-Mart
Separately, six weeks after her ouster from the mega-retailer as senior VP-marketing communications, Ms. Roehm was out today entertaining a gaggle of reporters before speaking on a panel about the value of Super Bowl advertising. One thing is for certain: She knows how to market herself.

Shaking hands with journalists as they approached her at the Reuters event in Times Square, she happily fielded questions. She called her dismissal a "blessing," likening this period in her life to the point post-graduate school when she was weighing several options. "It's very free and liberating," she said, adding that freelance consulting may be her next move.

When she stepped on-stage as the lone representative of the marketer's perspective, she was a woman with a message: Wal-Mart or no Wal-Mart, I know what the hell I'm talking about.

'Four to five meetings a day'
She discussed the value of Super Bowl-related marketing, such as the Lingerie Bowl she spearheaded for Dodge (that value being a campaign that extended to platforms beyond the pay-per-view halftime event), and discussed a life now filled with flights between her home in Fayetteville, Ark., and New York, where she's been in "four to five meetings a day" with companies of all kinds, though largely media-based companies. She said she's out there, learning about the latest technology in engagement and measurement.

Where to next? "Anyplace that doesn't end in -ville," she said. But if she has her choice, it'll be one of the big three: New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

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Brooke Capps contributed to this report.
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