Creative Director Sues Doner for Age Discrimination After Getting Fired Days Before Her 60th Birthday

Susan Walsh says the agency told her she lacked 'anticipated skills'

Doner signage on a building
Former Doner creative director Susan Walsh is suing the agency for age discrimination after being let go three days before her 60th birthday.

Susan Walsh, who worked for Doner for 10 years, first in 2008 as a copywriter and later as a creative director, has filed a lawsuit against the agency for age discrimination.

The suit, filed on Dec. 17 in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan, alleges that Walsh was abruptly and unjustly fired from her job at Doner Detroit last May, three days before her 60th birthday. Her departure was among a round of layoffs that targeted employees who did not possess the “anticipated skills, knowledge and abilities needed by employees in the future,” the lawsuit alleges Doner told Walsh upon her termination.

“Susan Walsh’s employment was terminated by Doner as part of a larger staffing reduction last spring,” a Doner spokesperson said in a statement to Adweek. “Her separation from employment was not due to any of the alleged reasons stated in her complaint. Doner has complied with all applicable laws and firmly believes that her lawsuit is without merit. Doner takes pride in recruiting and nurturing a diverse and inclusive workforce and treating all our employees fairly. Doner intends to vigorously defend Ms. Walsh’s lawsuit.”

The spokesperson added, “Ms. Walsh filed an earlier charge with [the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)] for alleged discrimination. Doner contested this claim, and the EEOC dismissed the charge in September 2018. Specifically, the EEOC found that the information obtained regarding Ms. Walsh’s charges did not establish any violation of the law.”

It is not clear why that complaint was dismissed. The EEOC was unavailable for comment as it is closed until the government reopens.

Walsh’s attorney, Shereef Akeel of Troy, Mich., firm Akeel & Valentine, disputed that the original complaint filed with the EEOC was dismissed because Walsh’s claims against Doner were unfounded. Akeel said the EEOC “did not make finding either for or against Doner” and did not have the resources to investigate further so it issued a right to sue letter on Sept. 21.

“Typically, the right to sue (which we got) is issued to allow the lawyers, like us, to then pursue the action,” Akeel said.

Matthew Disbrow of Detroit firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn is the lead attorney representing Doner. The agency has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.

In the suit, Walsh is described as a standout employee who regularly received promotions, salary increases and positive performance reviews during her time at the agency. Doner’s culture shifted, the suit alleges, after the agency hired global chief creative officer Eric Weisberg in the summer of 2016. Walsh says the new CCO showed preferential treatment to younger employees—including reassigning work from older employees to younger ones.

The filing states that Weisberg openly expressed a fondness for “digital natives,” a phrase often used to describe people who grew up with the Internet, namely millennials and Gen Zers.

Weisberg did not respond to Adweek’s request for comment via his Doner email address.

Walsh says the only explanation she received for her termination was that she had been identified “for a reduction in force” as one of a group of employees, including two of the three oldest employees in the creative department, who did not have the “anticipated skills, knowledge and abilities needed by employees in the future,” per the suit.

According to the lawsuit, Walsh’s direct manager, whose consistently positive performance reviews were attached as evidence in the case, was not aware of the decision beforehand. Walsh was also unaware ahead of time that she lacked the unspecified skills listed in the “reduction in force” order, the suit claims.

A ‘brilliant mind and a hard worker’

Randy Belcher served as executive creative director at Doner Detroit before his retirement in July and was Walsh’s manager. Belcher had been with the agency since 2000, after spending 10 years at The Martin Agency.

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