An age and gender discrimination lawsuit filed against Detroit-based MDC Partners agency Doner has been cleared to move ahead, as a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan judge has ruled against Doner’s request to dismiss the case.
Former Doner creative director Susan Walsh alleges she was wrongfully terminated due to age discrimination and was paid less than male colleagues. Doner’s position is that Walsh was fired as part of a “workforce reduction” and that she was paid appropriately for her role.
“We are pleased with the ruling,” Shereef Akeel, lead counsel for Walsh, said in a statement on the Aug. 7 decision. “Our client’s voice will finally be heard.”
A remaining issue is whether Walsh waived her right to a jury trial in her employment contract with the agency. On the issue of a jury or bench trial, the judge requested additional information within 30 days. A status conference is scheduled for Aug. 31.
Doner maintains that Walsh was fired as part of a “workforce reduction” at the time and that she was paid appropriately for her role.
“The court simply held that there are issues present that must be decided by way of a trial. In doing so, however, the court also noted that Doner may ultimately prevail in this case,” said Matt Disbrow, a lawyer representing Doner, in a statement to Adweek.
“Doner remains confident that this process will establish that Ms. Walsh was treated fairly, without discrimination, throughout her time at Doner,” he said.
Doner deferred to its counsel for comment. MDC Partners has not responded to a request for comment.
Walsh alleges that her firing on May 28, 2018, when she was 59 years old, was part of a pattern of age discrimination at Doner.
The case includes data showing that of the seven employees fired during the “reduction in force,” which includes Walsh, four were over the age of 40. The layoffs followed four new hires at Doner at the beginning of 2018, three of whom were under 40 years old.
The case also includes data around hiring and firing practices for previous years.
From March through May 2017, for example, Doner fired 18 employees over the course of two separate workforce reductions, 13 of whom were over the age of 40. From May through December of the same year, Doner then hired 18 employees, 17 of whom were under 40.
Walsh’s legal team provided a report from a statistics expert who concluded that the higher percentage of employees over 50 fired by Doner from 2015-2018 is “not likely to have occurred by chance alone,” with a statistical likelihood of one in 5,783 of this occurring solely due to chance.
The case also notes that an internal audit found that women at Doner were paid, on average, 10% less than men.
Doner argued that Walsh was paid fairly for her performance and responsibilities. In April 2017, Doner staged a company-wide walkout in observation for Equal Pay Day and released a video addressing gender-based pay gaps, pledging to audit itself.
During Walsh’s time at the agency, creative directors were paid between $125,125 and $220,000, with an average of $164,663. Her salary of $127,625 was lower than 12 other creative directors, nine of whom were men, and was also lower than seven male associate creative directors.