WPP, JWT File Motion to Dismiss Erin Johnson Lawsuit

Memorandum Calls Hostile Work Environment Claim Unfounded

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Erin Johnson
Erin Johnson Credit: J. Walter Thompson Company

Lawyers for JWT and parent company WPP have filed a motion to dismiss Erin Johnson's lawsuit against them and now-former JWT Chairman-CEO Gustavo Martinez, citing in part a text message from Ms. Johnson to Mr. Martinez.

"It is clear that Plaintiff has twisted the facts and distorted the context to contrive gender-based hostile work environment and retaliation claims," the new filing says.

Putting the events described in Ms. Johnson's suit into chronological order reveals the "lack of merit," the filing adds. "It is immediately noticeable that there are only a few incidents that might have any relevance to these claims," it says.

Ms. Johnson filed suit March 10, alleging that Mr. Martinez made multiple racist and sexist remarks.

The filing argues that a complimentary text message she sent him on Feb. 12 shows that she did not feel subjected to a hostile work environment.

The text said Ms. Johnson had rejected a job offer from another company "because I am loyal to you and what you are doing," according to the filing. The message also said, "I felt like we had a good year together. So I hope I wasn't wrong to stay. Lol."

Ms. Johnson's lawyers notified JWT and WPP in late February that a lawsuit could come. When they followed through, WPP said it had already conducted an internal investigation but found nothing to substantiate the claims. WPP later hired an external firm, Proskauer, to investigate again. Mr. Martinez resigned March 17.

The lawsuit said Ms. Johnson, some nine months prior to the filing, had alerted JWT's HR head Laura Agostini of some concerns, including ones related to a company meeting in Miami in May where Mr. Martinez made racist comments on video. The video in question was released last month.

The new filing says "virtually nothing supporting a hostile work environment claim is alleged to have happened in the nine-month period from when Laura Agostini acknowledged she was 'addressing' the issue involving a meeting in Miami with Defendant Gustavo Martinez ("Martinez") and when Plaintiff filed the Complaint."

Lawyers for Ms. Johnson said Friday afternoon that they just received the papers and had not fully digested them.

But Anne Vladeck, the lead lawyer representing Ms. Johnson, said the defense was "essentially attacking Erin for doing the right thing, for bringing it to court."

"They would prefer to attack her in the press and avoid the actual legal proceedings," Ms. Vladeck said. "And so while we have not had a chance to review the papers in detail, we are looking forward to submitting our response and getting on with this search for the truth -- which we believe will, as it already has, supports Erin."

Of the text message introduced today, Ms. Vladeck said, "The fact that they're plucking one text and misstating it, I'm not surprised."

The filing by WPP's lawyers also argues that Ms. Johnson's claims of a hostile work environment don't hold up because some of the alleged comments by Mr. Martinez weren't about her.

The video of the company meeting in Miami shows Mr. Martinez making comments about rape and rowdy party-goers from the night before, who, according to the lawsuit, were primarily African-American.

"It is clear that every move on Plaintiff's part, starting with the filing of a Complaint with allegations that are in part irrelevant to her, distorted and fabricated, was designed to make a splash with the media," the filing today says.

Whether particular comments were directed toward Ms. Johnson doesn't bear on whether they can create a hostile work environment, Ms. Vladeck said.

JWT last week created a diversity and inclusion council, an initiative under new CEO Tamara Ingram. The agency also tapped consulting firm InQuest to provide an independent review of the agency's policies, procedures and practices. JWT plans to create an internal network with a "talk-to-me hotline" for employees to call if they are upset or concerned about certain issues.

Aside from the meeting in Miami, the lawsuit described several other incidents in which Ms. Johnson said Mr. Martinez made comments that were offensive to women and people of color.

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