JWT Lawyers Respond to Erin Johnson’s ‘Incomprehensible’ Retaliation Claims

By Patrick Coffee 

If we may editorialize for a brief moment, the Erin Johnson/JWT case has completely devolved into a series of back and forth “no we didn’t/yes you did” missives filed by competing legal teams. The initial reasons for her filing the suit have all but disappeared from view, and at this point WPP seems to have few reservations about airing its internal disputes in public.

The latest development is a long letter filed by Davis & Gilbert with District Judge J. Paul Oetken yesterday. In short, it asserts that Johnson and her legal team were just making up all that stuff about “retaliation,” her current status as a “pariah” at JWT headquarters in New York, and an alleged campaign pressuring her to resign.

The letter opens by stating that the JWT organization has “bent over backwards to accommodate each and every request Plaintiff has made,” and calling her claims “incomprehensible.” It goes on to claim — dubiously — that “it is hard to imagine a scenario that would be less retaliatory than that presented by the facts here.”

The legal team then elaborates on the moves JWT and WPP have allegedly made to help Johnson from before she even officially filed her suit, first by granting her a “paid leave of absence just days after her lawyers sent a demand letter” (emphasis theirs, for emotional affect):

The Company and Gustavo Martinez then mutually agreed that Martinez would leave his position as CEO, even before a single allegation against him was proven in Court. It selected a woman who was already a senior executive of the parent organization, Tamara Ingram, to replace him. She immediately launched an executive-level Diversity and Inclusion Council and publicly declared that diversity and inclusion was one of her priorities.

Not clear how any of this is relevant to Johnson’s specific experience as a JWT employee beyond getting rid of Martinez (who still works for WPP, by the way), but the lawyers claim it was all about making women in general feel more comfortable working there.

The team then notes that JWT allowed her to stay on paid leave “for eight months while she raised issues about her job and failed and refused, despite numerous requests, to come back to work.” As a reminder, this claim contradicts Johnson’s lawyers’ letter from last week, which stated that the agency dropped the issue over the summer and did not offer a proper response to some of Johnson’s related queries regarding her return to work. JWT also allegedly offered Johnson a chance to work from home.

According to the letter, Johnson “ironically” stated that she would be unable to join Ingram’s diversity committee because it “would run counter to [her] experience at JWT.” It also claims that the very nature of her job presents a basic conflict of interest since her primary responsibility is to “put forward a positive image of the Company” … and her case has been an unqualified PR disaster for both JWT and WPP.

The key claim, emphasis again theirs: “it simply cannot be the case that the only way Defendants could have avoided a claim of retaliation here was to allow Plaintiff to continue to sit at home doing nothing while collecting her full salary week after week.

Also: ” the Company would have been well within its rights to terminate Plaintiff when she failed to comply with its request to return to work once her alleged harasser was no longer working at the Company.”

The letter goes on to claim that Johnson cannot prove that the agency’s actions have had a “chilling effect” on potential witnesses in her case and that last week’s letter was “rife with falsehoods.”

The specific accusations:

  • Johnson was not placed on a leave of absence before filing suit; she requested it
  • She did not respond to requests to return to work immediately after Martinez agreed to step down
  • The agency agreed to alter her responsibilities so as to avoid any perceived conflict of interest, “but Plaintiff rejected even these revised responsibilities” because the press would inevitably ask her about The Case
  • The new seating plan that places Johnson “in a box” right in front of Ingram and the head of HR had nothing to do with her return to the agency and was, instead, part of an unrelated renovation: “everyone sits in this open plan, including the North American CEO”
  • Johnson took notes during her first meeting with Ingram after asking questions “that were obviously intended to gather information for her case”
  • The letter about “retaliation” was written on November 3, the day after Johnson returned to the office — so she “never intended to come back to work in good faith”

So, according to this letter, the work Johnson now says she is not allowed to do is the very same work that she said she would be unable to do because of the case: “This is not retaliation, but simply the reality of the situation.”

There is more detail including claims that Johnson’s actions complicated JWT’s efforts to restaff its PR department following the departure of at least two women who worked under her. The whole purpose of the letter is to claim that the judge should not grant this request for an injunction, because “If Plaintiff feels that she is a ‘pariah’ or ‘suspect character’ at the Company, that feeling is entirely of her own doing.”

The argument holds that the relationship between any employee and his/her employer will inevitably break down when the former files a lawsuit against the latter and that Johnson cannot prove that she will be personally harmed by JWT executives’ actions. It also states that claims about intimidating potential witnesses are irrelevant because “discovery has not even begun in this case” and essentially argues that Johnson’s team weakened their current arguments by (allegedly) leaking news of the suit to The New York Post the day it was filed.

Certainly seems like WPP does not plan on settling anytime soon, and Gustavo Martinez’s law firm filed a separate letter essentially restating the claim that there’s no need for an injunction.

So where do we go from here, and what is it like to work at JWT New York these days?