JWT and Gustavo Martinez Deny Racist, Sexist and Anti-Semitic Claims in New Court Filings

Erin Johnson filed suit 10 months ago

WPP and Erin Johnson reached a settlement in April. Getty Images
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In documents filed this week in Manhattan federal court, former J. Walter Thompson global CEO Gustavo Martinez and his onetime employer formally denied almost every claim made against them in a suit filed by the WPP agency's global chief communications officer Erin Johnson early last year.

Martinez called the claims "outlandish" in March 2016 before resigning from his position one week later. This summer, a WPP spokesperson acknowledged that he and his wife had relocated to Barcelona and that he remains employed in an unspecified capacity "working on projects in Spain and Latin America."

The legal teams representing Martinez, JWT and WPP effectively admitted to only one of Johnson's more inflammatory charges: that Martinez told journalist Douglas Quenqua of Campaign that he and his wife had moved out of Westchester County, NY because it had "too many Jews."

Even in this case, the law firm of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, LLP declined to confirm or deny the specific language used on that occasion, writing that Martinez had expressed this sentiment to Quenqua because "he and his wife wanted to live in a diverse community."

Throughout the document, Martinez directly refutes other specific accusations of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. For example, Johnson's initial filing claimed that he had insulted her Jewish second assistant by telling her that her surname translated to "Jewish judge" rather than "high priestess" and that he told a group of JWT employees attending a 2016 dinner in Los Angeles that he "hate[s] those fucking Jews."

In the new document, Martinez admits to having the conversations in question but "denies [that] any Semitic, much less anti-Semitic comments were made in this regard."

Regarding the widely circulated video of a 2015 Miami corporate conference at which Martinez joked about his fear of being "raped … and not in the nice way," the document states that clip "speaks for itself," that he "was attempting to reassure the attendees at the off-site gathering," and that his joke had nothing to do with the "racial composition" of another party staying at the same hotel. The initial filing noted that those guests were "mostly African American."

In virtually every other incident—such as Johnson's claims that Martinez compared black people and/or Guatemalans to monkeys on multiple occasions, the document reads that "defendant denies the allegations" and "refers all questions of law to the Court and all questions of fact to the trier of fact."

This also applies to Johnson's claims that Martinez harassed and humiliated her both inside and outside the office; the document denies that he "was angry or aggressive" with her or that he once expressed a desire to "rape her in the bathroom" and subsequently asked her, in a meeting including other female employees, "which female staff member he could rape."

Martinez effectively admits only that he did indeed hold the titles attributed to him in the initial filing and that he was present at many of the occasions included in that document.

A second document filed today on behalf of the JWT organization by law firm Davis & Gilbert repeats many of Martinez's own assertions with slightly different language. It goes further in pushing back against some of Johnson's claims, such as the assertion that she approached chief talent officer Laura Agostini regarding the agency's perceived failure to address her complaints about Martinez. 

According to the JWT document, Johnson "burst into Agostini's office in a very agitated state" last February and proceeded to ask while "practically yelling" about whether anyone had confronted Martinez regarding the Miami rape joke. She then allegedly then "stormed out of Agostini's office" before the latter had a chance to "finish explaining" that both she and chief creative officer Matt Eastwood had advised the CEO not to use the word "rape."

These filings were expected after U.S. District Judge Paul J. Oetken officially denied efforts by lawyers representing WPP/JWT to dismiss the case entirely last month, thereby requiring the defendants to address Johnson's claims directly.

The agency's PR chief filed her discrimination suit in March 2016, claiming that she had been subject to "an unending stream of racist and sexist comments" since Martinez took over at JWT's New York headquarters in January 2015 that made her job "virtually impossible."

Today, the law firm of Davis & Gilbert against requested that Oetken "[dismiss] the Complaint in its entirety, with prejudice." If he chooses not to do so and the parties fail to reach a settlement, each legal team will be required to gather witnesses and supporting documents as the case moves into the trial phase.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.