Omnicom Reaches Settlement in Anti-Gay Discrimination Case
DDB creative director alleged harassment
By Patrick Coffee|January 5, 2018
Former DDB creative director Matt Christiansen, the plaintiff, and his lawyer, Susan Chana Lask, reached a settlement with the agency.
After more than two and a half years of legal developments, holding company Omnicom has reached a settlement in a discrimination suit brought by a now-former employee of its agency DDB.
The case went through a series of dramatic turns, including a dismissal by a U.S. District Court Judge in 2016, before the plaintiff successfully appealed earlier this year. It also served as a study in whether matters of sexual stereotyping may be applied to sexual orientation.
Conditions of the settlement have not been made public.
In May 2015, lawyer Susan Chana Lask, Esq. filed a civil complaint in the Southern District Court of New York seeking $20 million in damages on behalf of her client, DDB creative director Matthew Christiansen, for “discrimination, harassment and victimization … because of an HIV disability,” as stated in the complaint. She claimed violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees against discrimination based on sex, race, nationality or religion.
The defendants named in the case were Omnicom; DDB New York; that agency’s former chief digital officer Joe Cianciotto; its current CEO, Chris Brown; and its former CEO Peter Hempel.
This week, a holding company representative confirmed the settlement, writing, “the matter has been resolved amicably, and Matt is not returning to the agency.”
“Since I obtained the positive Second Circuit concurring decision now clarifying sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII, I then settled this matter amicably for all of the parties,” attorney Lask told Adweek. “Matt has happily moved on in his career, with the best wishes of all involved.”
Both parties declined to elaborate further.
Adweek reached out to Cianciotto on social media but has yet to receive a response. Davis & Gilbert and Leeds Brown Law, the law firms that represented Omnicom and Cianciotto, respectively, have not responded to emails seeking comment.
Allegations of harassment
In the initial filing, Christiansen, who was identified only as “Anonymous,” claimed that he had been “emotionally and physically paralyzed with fear as a gay man being discriminated by his own supervisor” while working under Cianciotto. According to that document, the other current and former DDB executives named in the case failed to act to prevent this behavior despite receiving complaints from Christiansen and other employees.
“The alleged conduct in this complaint occurred years ago and the employee who filed the lawsuit did not previously file a complaint with DDB about any of the actions cited,” an agency representative told Adweek the month after the case was filed in 2015. “We do not believe the lawsuit has merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”
Lask later provided Adweek with a statement calling those claims “inaccurate” before publishing a LinkedIn post that named her client and publicly detailed the allegations in the suit. That post claimed that Cianciotto “commenced a harassment campaign against [Christiansen] by repeatedly accusing Matthew of having AIDS just because he was gay” as soon as he joined DDB in 2011.
More specifically, Lask wrote that her client’s manager had referred to him as “super gay” and told another gay employee, “He sleeps with everyone. He must have HIV, right?” The post alleged that Cianciotto created drawings of “gay employees fornicating” in the agency’s New York office and included an image of another drawing, also allegedly created by Cianciotto, that depicted Christiansen “defecating, urinating and with an erect penis with comments on gay equality.”
The post went on to claim that Cianciotto had “accused [Christiansen] of having AIDS” during a meeting between colleagues and representatives of DDB client State Farm.
Christiansen was HIV-positive but did not have AIDS, according to his attorney’s initial filing.
Lask’s LinkedIn post, which went live in June 2015, also claimed that Christiansen and other employees complained to leadership, and that leadership “defended Joe [Cianciotto] and would threaten them.” In response to that claim, an agency spokesperson told Adweek, “The plaintiff in this action remains employed by DDB and has never been asked to leave the agency nor threatened with litigation by DDB.”
A new twist in the case.
In early 2016, the case was closed after a U.S. district judge approved the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that the protections of Title VII do not apply to sexual orientation or gender identity.
In her ruling, as reported by Gay City News, Judge Katherine Polk Failla “reluctantly” wrote that Christiansen and Lask had not demonstrated a violation of the Civil Rights Act despite the fact that Cianciotto was “openly resentful and hostile toward Plaintiff because of his sexual orientation.”
The plaintiff appealed, and nearly one year later, chief judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled in his favor. In that decision, Katzmann cited the 1989 case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, which concerned executives at the professional services network who allegedly told a female senior manager that she needed to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled and wear jewelry” if she wanted to become a partner.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against PwC in that case, and judge Katzmann’s ruling overturning the earlier dismissal cited the decision, noting: “We disagree with the district court’s conclusion that Christiansen failed to plausibly allege a Title VII claim based on the … stereotyping theory of sex discrimination articulated in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.”
Katzmann wrote, “The gender stereotyping allegations in Christiansen’s complaint are cognizable under Price Waterhouse and our precedents,” implying that the earlier case had conclusively established discrimination related to gender identity and sexual orientation as a potential violation of Title VII.
In March 2017, an Omnicom representative responded, “While we believe the claims in this individual case are without merit, Omnicom supports any change to the applicable federal law that would extend protection to employees who experience harassment on the basis of sexual orientation.”