Six months after J. Walter Thompson’s chief communications officer filed a sexual harassment suit against former CEO Gustavo Martinez, Erin Johnson’s lawyers this morning enjoyed their first small victory in court.
The legal teams for Johnson, WPP, J. Walter Thompson and Martinez met for the first time before United States District Judge J. Paul Oetken of the Southern District of New York, in order to determine whether the court should allow Johnson to file a second amended complaint to add another federal claim to the discrimination suit.
Judge Oetken ruled in favor of Johnson’s team, who had requested the meeting to essentially move the case along and to "avoid unnecessary motion practice," said Johnson’s lawyers in a letter filed August 25th.
The counsel for the defense had challenged Johnson’s suit, in part, for failing to comply with legal requirements to support her hostile work environment and retaliation claims. Specifically, the defense argued that Johnson’s team had failed to follow protocol, including filing for the right to sue with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at the time the suit was first filed in March, and by seeking to file another amendment, which would cause unnecessary burden on the court and require a new motion to dismiss from the defense.
Judge Oetken opened the proceeding by asking Johnson’s team why it had not filed with the EEOC at an earlier date to comply with the standards. Attorney Debra Raskin explained that it was necessary in order to get Johnson out of the hostile working environment and eliminate the possibility of further retaliation.
The defense countered that the argument that she needed to be extracted from the situation as soon as possible was "demonstratively untrue," because Johnson requested a paid leave of absence from JWT 10 days before filing the original complaint. "She was no longer at the company" and had no further contact with her former boss. "It wouldn’t have an impact" on why they needed to file so quickly, said Howard Rubin, a partner at Davis & Gilbert, one of the defense’s law firms.
Still, the judge ruled that although the time period for the filing was exhausted, he said if he denied the plaintiff’s request to file a second amended complaint they would only end up back in his court at a later date.
"I understand your frustration from a procedural point of view," he said, addressing Rubin. He gave the defense two weeks to respond to the second amended complaint.
"He did the right thing," said Anne Vladeck, one of Johnson’s lawyers and a partner at Vladeck, Raskin & Clark, after the meeting.
While today’s meeting was meant to strictly address the stalled request, after Judge Oetken made his ruling, the plaintiff’s council, Raskin, asked if she could "change the subject" and asked the court if they could begin the discovery process. "We really do want to get this moving," said Raskin, stressing that the longer it takes to get to the discovery process, the more harm is done to Johnson’s reputation, and to witnesses that are "afraid to come forward" for fear of retaliation.
Judge Oetken did not further entertain that conversation, saying that next steps in this case would not be taken until "I have a better sense of which aspects may move forward."
While Johnson’s legal team expressed their satisfaction with today’s results after the meeting, they also spoke of their frustration with what they characterized as the defense’s continued delay tactics. "We want to get to the merits of this and stop the procedural jousting," said Raskin.
Representatives of the defense declined comment.