A former employee of MuteSix, a DTC-specialized agency acquired by Dentsu Aegis Network in 2019, is suing the agency, alleging racial and gender discrimination as well as wrongful termination.
Former MuteSix digital marketing director Lamees Barnett filed the complaint, which also names Dentsu Aegis Network and 10 unnamed defendants, with the California Superior Court in Los Angeles on Aug. 25.
Dentsu Aegis Network and MuteSix both declined to comment to Adweek about the lawsuit, citing company policy on pending legal matters.
In the complaint, Barnett alleges MuteSix paid her less than her male peers and subjected her to disparate treatment, and that she was fired as a result of voicing her objections to the alleged mistreatment.
“She worked hard and found time and time again that she was being treated differently, talked to differently and paid differently than her male peers,” Reginald Roberts of Sanders Roberts LLP, which is representing Barnett in the case, told Adweek. “It was a challenge for her. When she built up the stomach to speak up about it, they steered her out the door. We’re bringing this claim to hold them to account for this conduct.”
MuteSix, which was named to Adweek’s inaugural Fastest Growing Agencies list in 2019, hired Barnett in November 2016 as one of its first employees and promoted her to digital marketing director in July 2018. Barnett alleges in the lawsuit that during her time at the agency, MuteSix hired non-African American and male workers with similar qualifications as hers into better positions with higher salaries and additional benefits.
According to the complaint, from July 2018 until May 2020, Barnett was the only African American at MuteSix “to successfully lead a team as a director.” Barnett alleges in the lawsuit that although she was responsible for managing more accounts than any other director, she was paid the least and that other directors were assigned more favorable accounts, given greater resources and, as a result, able to earn more in commissions.
The complaint also cites specific allegations of what it characterizes as “racial discrimination and harassment by MuteSix,” including racially insensitive comments—such as being asked in a meeting whether she knew how to swim and a comment that “Black people don’t do snow sports”—on the part of senior leadership that “caused her personal and professional harm.”
According to the court document, when Barnett reported the alleged discrimination to management, her complaints were dismissed and she was criticized for speaking out. Management allegedly labeled her “combative,” “emotional” and “argumentative,” which she contends are “racially coded comments.”
Senior leaders at the agency “routinely and unilaterally” limited Barnett’s opportunities while steering her to pitch Black-owned companies, according to the complaint, which goes on to state that non-Black employees were not regularly directed to such accounts, and that others were not directed to pitch accounts based on race.
The complaint alleges MuteSix “implicitly threatened negative consequences” against Barnett if she continued voicing such complaints, such as when one executive allegedly told her, “No one is putting a gun to your head to stay here.”
The court document alleges MuteSix followed through on such “implicit threats” by denying Barnett “countless deserved raises” as she continued to advocate for herself and others, and characterizes her firing on May 4 as a “final act of retaliation.”
Barnett is seeking damages from lost wages and benefits as well as for “physical sickness and resulting humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional distress” in addition to punitive damages from MuteSix.