NEW YORK: A US District Court judge ruled Friday that a group of former MSLGroup employees can invite other women to join a class action lawsuit against the agency and parent Publicis Groupe alleging gender pay discrimination.
The group of female PR professionals claim that Publicis and MSLGroup paid female employees less than their male counterparts. US District Court Judge Andrew Carter Jr. ruled that plaintiffs had presented enough evidence of widespread discriminatory practices to notify other women of their right to join the suit.
Once other potential plaintiffs are notified, MSL and Publicis can try to decertify the suit by arguing there was no widespread discrimination.
The ruling only addresses the lawsuit's pay discrimination claims. The employees will seek class status on the other claims separately, said the plaintiffs' lead counsel Janette Wipper.
In a statement issued Monday, MSLGroup said that the judge's ruling was “procedural” and “not unexpected.”
“The plaintiffs' public assertion this morning that class status has been granted is wholly false,” said Michael Echter, director of corporate communications at MSLGroup, in the statement.
“Our main concern is that [MSLGroup and Publicis] are attempting to chill participation of females in this case,” Wipper said in response.
Monique da Silva, a former healthcare director at MSLGroup, filed the $100 million class action suit in February 2011 seeking to represent women who worked at MSLGroup from 2008 until the date of judgment.
It alleged that MSL and the holding company paid female professionals less; did not promote female PR pros at the same rate as male counterparts; and conducted discriminatory demotions, terminations, and reassignments for female staffers during the agency's 2009 reorganization. It also alleges that da Silva and other female employees were wrongfully terminated after returning from maternity leave.
In April, MaryEllen O'Donohue, Laurie Mayers, Heather Pierce, and Katherine Wilkins were added as plaintiffs to the suit.
In March, MSLGroup and Publicis filed court documents opposing certification of the class action that said the potential ruling would be “unprecedented.”
The female employees, represented by law firm Sanford Wittels & Heisler, have submitted evidence including 11 declarations from former male and female MSLGroup employees, pay comparison charts, and a report by University of Pennsylvania professor Janice Madden claiming that women VPs and SVPs at Publicis were paid 8.5% to 11% less per year than men at the same level.
Publicis started to reorganize its PR agencies in 2009, creating MSLGroup to house its MS&L, Publicis Consultants, and Kekst & Co. firms.
Da Silva, who was based in MSL's Boston office and worked for the firm for 13 years, claims MSLGroup Americas president Jim Tsokanos told her during maternity leave that she would have to move to New York to run Publicis Consultants or face termination. She was terminated in January 2010, shortly after returning from maternity leave. Da Silva also claims her salary was less than male counterparts, and that she did not receive a raise for three years beginning in January 2007 although she was given increased responsibilities during that time.
The suit also alleges that MSL fired two VPs, Heather Wadia and Lorie Hirson, within weeks of returning from maternity leave and planned to demote Wendy Lund, now the CEO of GCI Health. It also claims Tsokanos and Olivier Fleurot, CEO of MSLGroup, created leadership teams made up of nearly all male executives following the reorganization.
Da Silva worked at Ogilvy PR from February 2010 to this January, when she joined Biogen Idec.