As it appeared on Law360
By Vin Gurrieri
Law360 (June 24, 2019, 8:19 PM EDT) — An ex-Chadbourne & Parke lawyer who brought a sex bias case against the firm that led to a $3.1 million public settlement is fighting for gender equality from a different angle — representing a former TracyLocke advertising executive who alleges that she was harassed and discriminated against.
Karen Dunbar, an ad industry veteran who started working for TracyLocke in 2015 in its Wilton, Connecticut, office, alleged in her lawsuit that she and other women were subjected to pervasive sexism from the company’s male-dominated leadership. One of Dunbar’s attorneys is KCampbell-Law PLLC’s Kerrie Campbell, who was herself a plaintiff in a high-profile pay discrimination suit against Chadbourne.
Dunbar said in her June 20 complaint that TracyLocke’s “disproportionately” male hierarchy stifled advancement opportunities for women and turned a blind eye to their complaints of mistreatment. Texas-based TracyLocke’s parent company, Omnicom Group Inc., was also named as a defendant.
“Even in an industry known for gender inequity, defendants’ culture of discrimination against women stands out as particularly pervasive,” Dunbar’s complaint said. “Despite calls for greater inclusivity and a shift away from the advertising industry’s history of misogyny, TracyLocke doubled-down on its old school corporate culture.”
After several decades in advertising, Dunbar joined TracyLocke in 2015 as a full-time freelance creative director and copywriter, a position she says in her complaint was far below her experience level and one that denied her benefits that male employees received for doing comparable work. She claims that TracyLocke slow-walked her move to a full-time employee position and impeded her from advancement opportunities.
Dunbar also offered several examples of the alleged sexism she endured: A male colleague suggested that her mouth be taped up so she could no longer speak, she was the subject of derogatory comments about her appearance, male colleagues used their large physical stature to engage in physical intimidation and at one point she was assigned to supervise a male worker who had a reputation for being particularly volatile toward women.
Some of the inappropriate comments made about Dunbar included remarks that she was akin to a “nagging wife” and comments decrying her for having “strong opinions,” according to the complaint.
In one instance, Dunbar claims she was used “as a token sex object” when a male manager purposely seated her next to a male client so that he “would have someone pretty, young, and sexy beside him.” That client then proceeded to spend a meeting flirting with her, according to the complaint. That same male manager also allegedly rubbed an exposed portion of her lower back in another incident detailed in Dunbar’s complaint.
Supervisors also impeded Dunbar from getting advancement opportunities that less-qualified male employees received, like getting to travel to client meetings or editing video presentations produced for clients, the complaint said.
But besides just the mistreatment she purportedly endured, Dunbar alleged that male supervisors “groomed” younger male employees to take part in the company’s sexist culture, with Dunbar claiming that TracyLocke CEO Hugh Boyle encouraged the use of a vulgar slang referencing female genitalia as part of regular conversation and that another top executive sexually assaulted a pregnant female employee by groping her breasts in view of another male worker, the complaint alleged.
“Men in the highest echelons of leadership engage in offensive and sexist conduct signaling that denigrating and harassing women is business as usual and complaining about it is an exercise in futility,” Dunbar said in her complaint, adding that various complaints she lodged throughout her tenure about mistreatment she and other women faced were often ignored.
Ultimately, Dunbar claims that she was fired without notice — and over reasons she said were easily disprovable — just weeks after she started organizing a support group for women employees known as “Feminist Fridays.”
The group sought to shine a spotlight on concerns regarding workplace sexual harassment and bias as well as press TracyLocke to adopt policies that promote equal pay and advancement opportunities for women, according to the complaint.
“Dunbar embraced her role as one of the only female members of TracyLocke’s creative leadership to challenge its misogynistic and pervasively hostile work environment,” the complaint alleged. “The only reasonable explanations for the shocking and abrupt downturn in Dunbar’s otherwise ‘exceptional’ career at TracyLocke are sex discrimination, and retaliation for Dunbar’s pursuit of equal treatment and equality activism, including her efforts to bring incidences of sexual harassment and discrimination to light.”
The suit alleges violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act.
Campbell told Law360 on Monday that the ad industry has been known to have a “pervasive culture” of gender-based sex and pay discrimination and that Dunbar’s suit could spur companies in that industry to take a closer look at their practices.
“I think this is the kind of case that will make a huge difference in the advertising industry. There have not been very many plaintiffs for good reason who have wanted to come forward,” Campbell said. “We believe this lawsuit will expose the serious problems in the ad industry and cause in particular Omnicom and TracyLocke and others to take a long-overdue deliberate set of actions to stop — as in S.T.O.P. exclamation point — sexual harassment and discrimination in the ad world workplace.”
Campbell noted that in the days since the suit was filed, she has been contacted by other women who have “similar #MeToo stories with these particular companies,” and that Dunbar’s attorneys are considering whether those women’s claims will be added to Dunbar’s suit.
Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, an anti-sexual harassment group that formed amid the #MeToo movement, said in a statement that the group is supporting Dunbar’s suit “because sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation are deep-seated issues in the advertising industry.”
“There is an opportunity here to expose and hopefully, change the damaging ‘Mad Men’ culture that persists in this industry,” Tejani said. “The increasing number of women entering the advertising space deserve a safe and equitable work environment and one that is not detrimental to their professional and financial growth.”
The $3.1 million public settlement that Chadbourne struck with Campbell and several other women lawyers who joined her suit resolved their claims under the Equal Pay Act. Each attorney also reached separate undisclosed private settlements with Chadbourne resolving their remaining claims. Chadbourne merged with Norton Rose Fulbright LLP in 2017.
A representative for TracyLocke wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Dunbar is represented by James J. Reardon of Reardon Scanlon LLP, Kerrie Campbell of KCampbell-Law PLLC, and Joseph I. Marchese and Philip L. Fraietta of Bursor & Fisher PA.
Counsel information for TracyLocke was not immediately available.
The case is Karen Dunbar v. TracyLocke & Omnicom Group Inc., case number 3:19-cv-00956, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.
–Editing by Jack Karp.