MSL seeks to dismiss suit's bid for class certification

MSLGroup and parent Publicis Groupe have claimed in court documents that pay decisions were made on an individual and local basis, and not by a centralized management team, as the lawsuit against them contends.

NEW YORK: MSLGroup and parent Publicis Groupe filed a brief earlier this month saying that the gender discrimination lawsuit against the company is invalid because pay decisions were made on an individual and local basis, not by a centralized management team.

The brief was filed in response to the plaintiffs' motion last month seeking class certification under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The agency and holding company are being sued in a $100 million class action case that alleges “systemic” discrimination against female PR employees.

The defendants have argued that the motion for class certification should be denied because “there is no ‘standard operating procedure' of gender discrimination at MSLGroup.” They say the agency's local supervisors made compensation decisions based on employee performance and business needs of their respective offices, with “no uniformity among these decisions.”

The defendants also argued there was no company-wide gender discrimination because an all-male centralized decision-making team did not exist. According to court documents, MSLGroup CEO Olivier Fleurot and Jim Tsokanos, former president of North America, did not participate in reviewing compensation decisions until early 2010. However, the financial oversight process allegedly included several women, such as Tara Lilien, Rita Masini, and Sophie Martin-Chantepie, documents say.

If the plaintiffs' motion for class certification is successful, about 200 to 250 women would be eligible to join the suit in addition to the 33 female employees already pursuing their claims. Plaintiffs have until August 27 to respond to the defendants' brief, and then the court will decide whether to grant their motion, a process that could take months.

Additionally, the defendants claimed there is a conflict among the prospective class members that should rule out class certification. Many of the group's members supervised or in some cases recommended promotions for other members, the court documents noted.

“In their opposition to [the] plaintiffs' motion for class certification, neither Publicis Groupe nor MSLGroup deny that women earn 10% less than men in the same jobs at the VP and SVP level at MSL,” said Janette Wipper, lead counsel for the plaintiffs at law firm Sanford Wittels & Heisler, in a statement. “Instead, the company offers a flawed statistical analysis that studies the wrong population and the wrong issues. By sidestepping the stark pay disparities uncovered by plaintiffs, the company's defense is meaningless.”

She added that “Publicis Groupe and MSLGroup also do not refute the plaintiffs' evidence that the company disproportionately terminated women who took maternity leave and otherwise systematically discriminated against working mothers. The company did not - and could not - deny that it discriminates against pregnant employees in its own written policies.”

MSLGroup deferred comment on the case to the court documents.  

The plaintiffs allege that senior male executives at the firm discriminated against employees who became pregnant or took maternity level. They also claim that MSLGroup's HR directors did not stop discriminatory pay, leave, and termination decisions that adversely affected female employees, as well as derogatory behavior toward women staffers.

Last December, 28 more women opted into the suit, bringing the number of plaintiffs to 33. That group has received class status under the Equal Pay Act, which prohibits sex-based wage discrimination.

Court documents filed in the case describe senior male executives at the firm, including Tsokanos and former Washington MD Neil Dhillon, behaving in a derogatory manner toward female employees.

Tsokanos left the agency last September, and the firm promoted Renee Wilson to replace him as president of North America. Dhillon left the agency earlier this year, and Shellie Winkler is serving as interim MD of the DC office. The Publicis agency has not said whether Dhillon's departure was related to the lawsuit.

Monique da Silva Moore, a former healthcare director at MSL, filed the $100 million class action suit in February 2011 in US District Court in the Southern District of New York. It alleged MSL and Publicis paid female professionals less; did not promote women at the same rate as male counterparts; and conducted discriminatory demotions, terminations, and reassignments for female staffers during the agency's 2009 reorganization.

In April 2011, MaryEllen O'Donohue, Laurie Mayers, Heather Pierce, and Katherine Wilkins were added as plaintiffs to the suit.

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