A Second Harassment and Retaliation Suit Filed Against Hyundai Agency Innocean Comes to Light

Account director says she was wrongfully fired after reporting her boss

The complaint names Innocean Worldwide Americas and a now-former executive as defendants.

Just over one week after Hyundai’s ad agency Innocean Worldwide placed chief creative officer Eric Springer on leave following Adweek’s report of a sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed against him, another suit has surfaced.

This case accuses the agency and a now-former executive of sexual harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination, in addition to the intentional infliction of emotional distress, unfair business practices and violation of California’s labor code.

The suit was filed in civil court on Aug. 29, 2017 by Wolder & Associates on behalf of Catherine Bennett, a onetime account director for Hyundai’s Genesis brand, and later moved to federal court, where it was most recently refiled on Jan. 29. The complaint names as defendants Innocean Worldwide Americas and former vp of customer relations management Michael Sachs.

At the crux of the case lies Bennett’s claim that Sachs fired her in retaliation after she accused him of improper work conduct and harassment. Specifically, she asserts that he repeatedly showed up at the office intoxicated and sent her inappropriate text messages outside of work.

Bennett is seeking compensation for financial damages, including loss of pay, benefits and other earnings, and for emotional distress, humiliation, shame and embarrassment. Prior to the lawsuit, she filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which determined on Sept. 12 that she had a right to sue.

“As a company, we generally do not comment on pending legal matters,” read a statement from the agency’s legal counsel, which clarified that this case “does not involve Eric Springer in any way” before adding, “Other than the foregoing, we have no further comment as this litigation is still ongoing.”

Agency deems the suit frivolous

In a response filed on Sept. 18 and refiled on Feb. 14, the law firm of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith—which also represents Innocean in the Springer case—argues that the plaintiff has failed to prove she suffered any damages.

It denies “each, every and all of the allegations” brought by Bennett as well as the claim that “the plaintiff sustained damages in the sums alleged, or in any other sum, or at all.”

Additionally, the defense asserts that the plaintiff filed the complaint outside the statute of limitations, citing the California Code of Civil Procedure. It maintains that her contract was at-will, that her termination was non-retaliatory and non-discriminatory, and that it didn’t represent any “abuse of managerial discretion.”

The defendants also assert that Bennett failed to “utilize or exhaust” Innocean’s internal grievances procedures and that any resulting damages were therefore “caused and contributed to, in whole or in part” by her own actions, thus “barring or limiting” any right of recovery for damages. They also allege that Innocean “took all reasonable steps to prevent harassment and/or retaliation from occurring.”

The defense characterizes the lawsuit as frivolous. As in the Springer case, the firm is asking the judge to recoup its legal fees and dismiss the case altogether.

Claims of chronic intoxication and improper texting

The court documents claim Sachs—who once worked with Bennett in the Ford Motor Co. marketing department around 2001—began “aggressively” recruiting her for a director-level position at Innocean in late 2016 while she was at an auto-related startup called DealerSocket.

Bennett eventually accepted the role of account director on the Genesis business, beginning her new job on Feb. 27, 2017. Soon after joining Innocean, Bennett claims in the court filings, she noticed that “the workplace lacked coherent leadership” and that Sachs “was unexplainably absent more than half of the time.” She also alleges that his absence led three employees to resign in those initial weeks.

Court papers state that when Bennett did see Sachs in the office, he often “exhibited a strong smell of alcohol on his breath … had difficulty remembering details and seemed disoriented about priorities in the [customer relations management] department and his day-to-day responsibilities.”

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