Andowah Newton. Photo: YouTube
A top in-house lawyer at the U.S. affiliate of luxury brand company LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton Inc. sued her company Tuesday, claiming she was sexually harassed by a male colleague, punished for reporting it and was told by the employer that the behavior at issue was "mere flirting" and par for the course in a French company.
Andowah Newton, vice president of legal affairs and litigation counsel at LVMH, retained Pierce Bainbridge Beck Price & Hecht in the suit against LVMH. The French multinational luxury goods conglomerate does tens of billions in business every year and owns brands including Dior, Fendi and Givenchy.
Newton's suit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, claims an unnamed senior employee of the company leered at her, pressed his body against hers and tried to kiss her. She said other in-house counsel were angry at her when she formally complained.
Newton, who still works at LVMH and is based in New York, alleges the company hired an outside investigator to run a sham inquiry that led to no discipline for her harasser. And she said she received a nonsensical negative performance review last month in retaliation.
“Ms. Newton had received nothing but outstanding, stellar reviews for her performance year in and year out,” the suit said. “But that changed once Ms. Newton filed her sexual harassment complaint. Ms. Newton was criticized for some of the very same things that had won her praise in the past.”
She said LVMH’s actions and failures to act violated New York City and state discrimination laws. In addition to unspecified money damages for emotional distress, Newton has demanded reforms by her employer. She seeks an order requiring LVMH to create an anonymous complaint mechanism and requiring its staff to be trained on how to respond to harassment complaints.
LVMH said in a statement Tuesday that Newton’s allegations had “no merit whatsoever” and pledged to mount a vigorous defense. LVMH also said the accused perpetrator was a member of the company’s facilities staff, not a top executive.
“LVMH has clear policies prohibiting harassment and retaliation in the workplace and procedures to address any concerns raised. Consistent with this, when Ms. Newton first shared her concerns with us in May 2018, we immediately conducted an internal investigation, as well as engaged a neutral, third party to conduct an external investigation,” the statement said in part. “Neither of these investigations found any evidence to support Ms. Newton’s claims.”
Newton, who has a background in accounting, spent eight years in Big Law (her LinkedIn profile said she worked as an associate at Mintz, Levin, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo and Hogan & Hartson, a predecessor of Hogan Lovells) and joined LVMH in 2015.
Newton's suit said the first encounter with her unnamed harasser was in May 2015, when he told that she was "so pretty." The harasser began to linger outside of Newton's office regularly and "leer" at her, making Newton "feel as though he was undressing her with his eyes.”
The same year, Newton said, the alleged harasser lunged across her desk, supposedly to make a phone call, resulting in him “thrusting his pelvis and genitals into her face." Later, at an event, the alleged harasser sought to kiss her and other LVMH employees on the cheeks, a traditional French greeting called “bises.” When she pulled away, he protested.
After she reported her harasser several times over the years to an in-house employment lawyer, she told her harasser via email in 2018 to leave her alone and forwarded it to the in-house lawyer, the suit said. He allegedly responded by saying he now had to report it.
The next day, LVMH's senior director of talent development interviewed her but seemed to care more about the words she used in her email than her allegations, the suit said. The next day, after speaking with the employment counsel and general counsel, Newton’s boss, who also wasn’t named in the complaint, the senior director closed the inquiry, telling Newton that the behavior she complained of is to be expected in a French company, according to her complaint.
Newton said she lived and studied in France for years and the notion that she didn’t understand or appreciate French culture is “laughable.” Her harasser wasn't even French, she said.
A few days later, Newton said, she filed a formal complaint with LVMH’s senior vice president of human resources. The next day, according to the complaint, the general counsel told her it would be a “waste of resources” to hire an outside investigator, but eventually relented.
The outside investigator—a former judge, according to an LVMH spokesperson—seemed set on exonerating Newton’s harasser, the complaint alleged. The investigator, a woman who is not named in the lawsuit, opined that the #MeToo movement reminded her of McCarthyism, Newton said. The investigator found no violations of law or company policy, the suit said.
Before the outside investigator had filed her report, Newton said, the retaliation started. She said the GC began asserting more control over her cases. And at her performance review last month, Newton said, she was upbraided for the way she communicated with outside counsel at Chicago-based Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg, even though her relatively stern approach had won plaudits in the past.
Ed Malone, a partner at Barack Ferrazzano and its general counsel, said the firm doesn't comment on litigation involving clients.
Andowah Newton. Photo: YouTube