Legal Filing Claims WPP Is Downplaying ‘Sexist, Humiliating’ Behavior by Former JWT CEO

Erin Johnson's lawyers say lawsuit should continue

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The legal team for Erin Johnson says her agency's parent company, WPP, is trying to downplay offensive behavior by ousted JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez while also tacitly discouraging other potential whistleblowers from stepping forward.

The agency holding company's response to Johnson's claims of discrimination by Martinez, her lawyers say, sends the message that "if you complain of discrimination, you will be attacked publicly, be branded as a liar and ostracized."

The strong words continue an ongoing battle in the legal system and the court of public opinion dating back to March, when Johnson, JWT's global communications director, filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination, harassment and a hostile work environment stemming from Martinez's allegedly frequent and negative comments about women, minorities and Jews.

After initially standing behind Martinez, WPP hired an independent investigative agency soon after the allegations came to light. Soon after that, Martinez abruptly resigned. However, his exit has not stalled Johnson's case against her employer.

In May, all three defendants in the case—Martinez, JWT and WPP—filed motions to have Johnson's lawsuit dismissed. They claimed that Johnson had failed to prove that Martinez's controversial comments, including a recorded staff meeting where he made light of rape, amounted to discrimination against Johnson. 

This week, Johnson's attorneys filed their response to the motion, calling Martinez's rebuttal to her lawsuit "wrong both factually and legally."

Her filing also takes issue with WPP's claim that there are not enough proven instances of bad behavior by Martinez to show Johnson faced a hostile work environment at JWT. 

"Corporate defendants list six such incidents [of offensive comments by Martinez]," Johnson's new filing states. "That behavior, without more, could state a claim for a hostile environment. In addition, however, defendants ignore that those allegations are far from describing isolated incidents, but instead are examples of sexist, humiliating and threatening behavior that was typical of Martinez."

In their motion for dismissal, WPP's lawyers stated that Johnson's claims didn't illustrate a hostile work environment based on sexual harassment because she made "no allegation that he actually talked about 'the sex.'"

Johnson's lawyers fired back in their countermotion, saying Martinez's comments were often overtly sexual in nature.

"The sex-based nature of Martinez's offensive comments and conduct frequently

was explicit," her legal team's new filing states. "For example, when Johnson told Martinez that his comments about rape were not acceptable in the workplace, he responded by telling her that 'American women are too sensitive.' Shortly thereafter, he grabbed Johnson around the neck with his arm, telling her to come to him so that he could rape her in the bathroom." 

WPP declined to comment on Johnson's newest filing. 

Below, you can read Johnson's legal team's entire response to WPP and Martinez's motion to dismiss:

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."