Plaintiffs seek to expand suit against MSLGroup

NEW YORK: Plaintiffs in the gender discrimination lawsuit against MSLGroup and parent Publicis Groupe have filed a motion to give their case a new class status that would open participation in the suit to hundreds more women.

NEW YORK: Plaintiffs in the gender discrimination lawsuit against MSLGroup and parent Publicis Groupe have filed a motion to give their case a new class status that would open participation in the suit to hundreds more women.

The plaintiffs filed the motion seeking class certification under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act earlier this month in US District Court in the Southern District of New York. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

If the motion for class certification is successful, female employees who had worked at MSL's US offices at the SVP or VP level; had taken family and medical, pregnancy, or maternity leave; or had worked a reduced or flexible schedule from 2008 until the date of judgment would be automatically added to the class action, with an option to opt out. That would mean about 200 to 250 women could join the suit in addition to the 33 female employees already pursuing their claims, according to court documents.

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.

Defendants have until August 13 to file a brief in opposition to the plaintiffs' motion for class certification. After that, plaintiffs will have until August 27 to respond, and then the court will decide whether to grant their motion, a process that could take up to six months.

Court documents filed in the case describe senior male executives at the firm, including former North America president Jim Tsokanos and 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.

It is understood that Dhillon is no longer working at the firm. When PRWeek called Dhillon at his office for comment, a receptionist said he no longer works at the firm.

The plaintiffs also allege that senior male executives at MSL discriminated against employees who became pregnant or took maternity leave, including by firing them “in disproportionately large numbers,” the court documents say.

The plaintiffs' case also alleges that MSL'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.

An MSLGroup spokesperson said in a statement that “the courts have articulated strict standards for class action certification, and we do not believe the plaintiffs can meet those standards.”

“The fact is, women, as a group, were treated the same as men in the implementation of compensation policies and practices at MSLGroup, and were not discriminated against based on their gender. We expect to clearly demonstrate that when we file our brief on class certification on August 13, 2013,” the statement continued. “MSLGroup is fully committed to the fair, equal, and respectful treatment of all of its employees, and a review of compensation and promotion decisions at the firm shows that there was no material difference in those decisions for female and male employees.”

The firm added in the statement that it “remain[s] convinced that the lawsuit has no merit, and we will continue to defend against it vigorously.”

Additionally, the plaintiffs allege that male employees at MSL earned an average of $15,000 more per year than female employees at the same level in 2008 and 2009, and an average of $18,500 more in 2010.

The median salary for male employees in the PR industry overall was $44,500 higher than female employees' median salary last year, according to the 2013 PRWeek/Bloom, Gross & Associates Salary Survey.

Attorneys at Sanford Heisler, the law firm representing the plaintiffs, declined to comment.

Monique da Silva Moore, a former healthcare director at MSL, filed the $100 million class action suit in February 2011. 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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