WPP retains prominent labor lawyer to investigate discrimination claims

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell.
WPP CEO Martin Sorrell.

Bettina (Betsy) Plevan is former president of the NY bar and the lawyer who successfully defended Bob Guccione in a $4M suit

WPP has hired Bettina (Betsy) Plevan, a prominent labor lawyer and partner at New York firm Proskauer Rose, to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations made against J. Walter Thompson and CEO Gustavo Martinez in the discrimination lawsuit filed last week by the agency’s Chief Communications Officer Erin Johnson.

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell notified agency leaders of the appointment in an email Monday night, said a person familiar with the case. "I just wanted to update you on the Erin Johnson lawsuit," wrote Sorrell. "We have decided to retain an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations in the complaint. Bettina Plevan of Proskauer Rose LLP will lead this. Feel free to use this information with clients, our people and other parties as you see fit."

Plevan, who has served as president of the New York City Bar, is a leading labor lawyer who has represented many high-profile defendants in discrimination suits, including the late Penthouse owner Bob Guccione. In that case, cited as one of her landmark wins, she successfully appealed a $4 million sexual harassment awarded to a former Penthouse Pet. 

Davis & Gilbert, a firm that according to its website has represented WPP in "virtually all of its acquisitions," remains counsel to WPP and JWT, but Plevan is now leading the investigation, said a source familiar with the case.

On March 10, the day Johnson filed the discrimination suit, WPP issued a statement saying its lawyers had been investigating the matter and had not yet found evidence to support the accusations detailed in the suit. "WPP’s lawyers have been conducting an enquiry into previous correspondence on these matters since February 25 and have found nothing, as yet, to substantiate these charges," said the memo.

Johnson filed the discrimination suit against Martinez, WPP and JWT in federal court alleging that Martinez repeatedly made racist and sexist comments, rendering it "impossible for her to do her job." According to the suit, Martinez frequently referred to black people as "monkeys," complained about "the fucking Jews" and joked in front of colleagues about raping Johnson and other female staffers.

Martinez issued a statement denying the accusations after news of the suit broke in the New York Post. "I am aware of the allegations made against me by a J. Walter Thompson employee in a suit filed in New York Federal Court. I want to assure our clients and my colleagues that there is absolutely no truth to these outlandish allegations, and I am confident that this will be proven in court," he said in a statement issued by WPP.  

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