Key Insights

Key Insights

Headshot of Erik Oster

Key Insights

Key Insights

A former creative director is asking Detroit-based agency Doner to provide personnel and financial information in her attempt to prove that age discrimination was behind her firing in 2018.

Nearly a year ago, Susan Walsh filed an age discrimination lawsuit against Doner, prompted by her firing days ahead of her 60th birthday after 10 years with the agency. Walsh also alleges she was paid less and treated differently than male peers in comparable positions.

On Dec. 6, 2019, Walsh filed a motion to compel Doner to provide discovery information related to its hiring and firing practices. Additionally, the motion asks for financial information, which she argues will help determine if the agency has stated reasons for laying off her and other employees were valid and if the agency’s firing and hiring practices constituted a pattern of discriminating against older employees.

This week, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan Southern Division struck down the motion, days ahead of the end of the lawsuit’s discovery phase on Dec. 13.

“This wasn’t a substantive ruling; this was a procedural order by the judge asking us to try to resolve the dispute,” Shereef Akeel, who is representing Walsh in the case, told Adweek via phone.

The complaint

According to the lawsuit, Walsh was told that she was among a group of employees who were let go as a round of layoffs at the MDC Partners agency targeting those who lacked “anticipated skills, knowledge and abilities needed by employees in the future.”

MDC Partners didn’t return a request for comment.

Doner disputed this characterization, stating at the time the complaint was filed that her firing, “was not due to any of the alleged reasons stated in her complaint” and was part of a more significant staffing reduction.

The complaint claims that following the arrival of Eric Weisberg as CCO in July 2016, Doner repeatedly and strategically utilized alleged workforce reductions as a way to “systematically rid the agency of older employees and replace them with younger ones.” Such quarterly practices did not constitute a real “reduction in force,” the complaint alleges, but instead were “implemented merely to conceal Doner’s practice of considering age as a factor when terminating an employee.”

Eric Weisberg and Doner did not return a request for comment.

In support of this characterization, Walsh and Akeel allege that Doner’s hiring of 11 new employees to its creative department in May 2017, which is attributed to new business momentum, included only employees under the age of 40, while many laid off under a subsequent “realignment” three months later were over the age of 40. Walsh, then 59, was fired on May 23, 2018.

The question of whether or not a pattern emerged

Akeel told Adweek that, to push the case forward, he was seeking specific data regarding “other employees who were fired in rounds of layoffs” and “who [were] hired” after Walsh’s dismissal in a procedure known as a motion to compel discovery requests.

Matthew Disbrow, the lead attorney defending Doner in the case, said in a statement via email to Adweek: “The dispute is a private matter regarding procedural discovery issues only. It will be addressed at the appropriate time through appropriate channels. We believe that Ms. Walsh’s motion is not properly before the court, [and] substantially mischaracterizes the facts of this case.”

Disbrow also accurately predicted that the motion would be struck down.

“Doner remains confident that the actual facts surrounding this case will establish that Ms. Walsh was fairly treated throughout her time at Doner. Ms. Walsh never experienced any discrimination, and there is no basis whatsoever for her lawsuit,” he added.

Erik Oster is a staff writer for Adweek.