One of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s own in-house lawyers in New York on Tuesday accused the French luxury brand’s Stateside subsidiary of condoning another employee’s sexual harassment of her, and then retaliating against her after she reported it. LVMH denies the allegations.
Andowah Newton, who is still a vice president of legal affairs and litigation counsel at LVMH, claimed in a lawsuit filed in New York state court that a “senior-level management employee,” whom she didn’t identify in the suit or name as a defendant, had been harassing her since 2015. In its statement Tuesday, LVMH disputed her characterization of the alleged harasser’s job title, describing him instead as a “member of the company’s facilities staff.”
The suit claims the harasser hung around her office complimenting her looks even as she rebuffed him, tried to kiss her at a work event by using European greeting norms as pretext for unwanted advances, and once even physically lunged over her to reach for her phone on her desk.
But it is the company’s response to her complaints that is central to the dispute. Newton claims that she “informally” reported the harassment over the course of 2015 to 2018, speaking directly to staff, including an in-house employment attorney, because she feared filing a formal complaint could backfire. But the halting response didn’t lead to much action, she claimed, until an e-mail she sent in 2018 about the alleged harassment.
“LVMH did everything it could to bury the problem, trying to intimidate Ms. Newton into not pursuing her claims and convince Ms. Newton that the harassment was just a byproduct of being an attractive woman who works at a company with a French culture, and thus should simply be tolerated,” according to the suit.
In its statement, LVMH portrayed a different version of events, contending that Newton “first shared her concerns with us in May 2018,” and that it then responded “immediately” by first investigating her complaint internally, and then also bringing in an outside investigator.
“Neither of these investigations found any evidence to support Ms. Newton’s claims,” the company said Tuesday. “Moreover, Ms. Newton has not been retaliated against in any way and remains an employee of the company.”
But Newton’s suit also takes aim at those two investigations, which had apparently found “no violation of company policy or the law.” In recent years, workplace internal investigations have become an increasingly common response by companies trying to either proactively identify problems of workplace culture or respond to reports of harassment. But Newton characterizes both investigations by LVMH — the first led by its director of talent development, and a second one by an outside investigator not identified in the complaint — as designed more to downplay her allegations.
For instance, the director of talent questioned whether the employee had threatened her, seeming to imply that any alleged harassment was not serious enough to act on otherwise, the suit claimed.
“The director of talent described the harasser’s behavior as ‘mere flirting’ and told Ms. Newton that the incident in which he had attempted to kiss Ms. Newton was ‘what executives do in a French company,’ suggesting that Ms. Newton was unfamiliar with French culture and should simply tolerate the behavior,” according to the complaint.
Newton, a trained accountant and attorney, said she has previously studied and worked in France.
The suit also accused LVMH of promoting the alleged harasser before the end of its second internal investigation, which was conducted by the outside investigator. That inquiry had centered more around the difficulty of proving sexual harassment, according to the complaint, which also said the investigator had suggested that such complaints might only give her the reputation of being “thin-skinned.”
“The investigator’s comments during the interview made clear that the investigator had been tasked with intimidating Ms. Newton and convincing her to put an end to the matter in favor of defendant LVMH, rather than using the interview as an opportunity to understand all the facts,” according to the complaint.
The suit seeks undisclosed damages for emotional distress, but also asks the court to find that LVMH’s actions engendered a hostile workplace in violation of New York employment laws, and to issue an injunction to require LVMH to address its workplace culture.