Since returning to work Nov. 2 for the first time since filing her discrimination suit against former CEO Gustavo Martinez, chief communications officer Erin Johnson has been subjected to "highly visible retaliation" by the agency and current CEO Tamara Ingram in an attempt to dissuade other employees from testifying on her behalf, according to a motion filed in Manhattan federal court Thursday evening.
The motion, filed by the law firm of Vladeck Raskin & Clark, says that Ingram told Johnson upon her return that she was being kept "in a box" for her own protection and that she was not allowed to speak to the press for fear that she would "become the story."
"Ingram has made clear that Johnson would no longer be permitted to do anything that resembled the duties of her prior position as chief communications officer," said the five-page motion. "Defendants have precluded Johnson from speaking to the press, a central function of her former position; barred her from working with her former staff and seated her in a cubicle in front of JWT's human resources head where Johnson's every action can be closely monitored."
The purpose of the alleged humiliation is to intimidate other employees from supporting her in her ongoing suit against Martinez, whom she claimed subjected her to a constant stream of "racist and sexist slurs," said the motion. The lawyers are requesting an injunction against JWT and WPP, which would presumably compel them either to let Johnson perform her job fully or return to her leave of absence.
By limiting her activities, "JWT has positioned Johnson as a suspect character," said the motion. "Indeed, Ingram chastised Johnson for taking notes, as had been her long-standing practice during any important meeting or conversation," it continued. "The new diversity officer even urged Johnson not to walk down the hall where Johnson might have had the opportunity to speak to other employees rather than stay in her cubicle under the watchful eye of Human Resources."
Though she is not named in the motion, the "head of human resources" whom Johnson is seated in front of is presumably chief talent officer Laura Agostini, a central figure in Johnson's ongoing discrimination suit. In her original complaint, Johnson said she complained to Agostini about Martinez's behavior, but was forced to seek redress through the courts when no disciplinary action was taken. The "new diversity officer" is presumably Celia Berk, whom the agency brought aboard in May to oversee its new diversity and inclusion council.
When Johnson allegedly asked Ingram when she would be allowed to presume her normal activities, the CEO responded, "How long do these things take?" and then remarked, "It could take a long time," according to the motion.
Finsbury, the PR firm that is assisting WPP and JWT in the Johnson suit, declined to comment on the specifics of the filing. "We will respond at the appropriate time in the legal proceeding," said a spokesperson.
Johnson returned to work on Nov. 2 after an eight-month leave of absence, during which the two sides bitterly disagreed over the state of her employment. At the first in-face meeting between the legal teams, in Manhattan federal court on Sept. 9, the defendants said that Johnson had refused JWT's "repeated attempts" to have her return to the office. Johnson's team denied that any attempt had ever been made, citing emails between the two sides from June that merely discussed whether she might return and in what capacity.
Last Tuesday, Ingram sent an internal memo telling staff that Johnson would return to work the following day. That memo is cited in the current motion as evidence that Ingram was not genuinely concerned with Johnson "becoming the story," as she had reason to believe the memo would be leaked to the press.
Martinez resigned his position one week after Johnson filed her lawsuit, and was replaced by Ingram, who was previously WPP's chief client officer. Martinez continues to work on projects for WPP.