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Former MusiCares Employee Files Suit Against Recording Academy Alleging Wrongful Termination, Harassment

Neil Portnow
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

President and CEO of The Recording Academy Neil Portnow speaks onstage during the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 10, 2019 in Los Angeles.

Dana Tomarken first detaileds her allegations against the organization and president/CEO Neil Portnow in a letter to the nonprofit's board of directors last year.

Former MusiCares/Grammy Foundation vice president Dana Tomarken has filed a lawsuit against The Recording Academy, taking legal action on allegations she first detailed last year in a letter to the organization's board of trustees.

Tomarken alleges a labor code violation, wrongful termination, discrimination based on her age and gender, unlawful retaliation, failure to prevent retaliation and discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress in her lawsuit, which also names the MusiCares Foundation, Grammy Museum and Grammy Foundation as defendants. Tomarken is 75 and had worked with the Academy for 25 years until she was fired last year.   

In the documents, which were submitted to the Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday (Feb. 12) and reviewed by Billboard, Tomarken says Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow led the misconduct, while abusing his position of trust and violating his fiduciary duty by "using MusiCares as a bargaining chip in Grammy Awards telecast negotiations to promote the Recording Academy’s interests over those of MusiCares." Tomarken claims Portnow steered money away from MusiCares in order to fund a deficit created by last year's Grammy telecast in New York City that he was behind a deal to hold the MusiCares Person of the Year event at Radio City Music Hall instead of Brooklyn's Barclays Center, which resulted in an 80 percent drop in fundraising from $5 million in 2017 down to $1 million in 2018 -- the lowest revenue had been since 2002.

"He abused his position of trust and violated his fiduciary duty by, among other things, using MusiCares as a bargaining chip in Grammy Awards telecast negotiations to promote the Recording Academy’s interests over those of MusiCares," the suit states.

According to Tomarken, Portnow withheld information about MusiCares's decline in fundraising from her and the MusiCares board of directors. In the days following last years Grammys telecast, Portnow was facing extreme pressure over the awards show and comments he made following that women in the music industry needed to "step up" if they wanted more recognition. At this time, Tomarken told Portnow she would be making a report to MusiCares board members regarding the 2018 Person of the Year financial results -- which Tomarken says Portnow feared would expose his alleged "misconduct and abuse of trust." In turn, she claims, Portnow "set about to exploit a culture at the Academy and MusiCares that was hostile and discriminatory to women like Ms. Tomarken in order to rid himself of the threat she posed."

Tomarken says Portnow enlisted Gaetano Frizzi, chief of the Academy's human resources department, to harass her, ultimately leading to her firing over a $2,500 bill for a MusiCares auction item that she was late in paying.

"With Ms. Tomarken gone from MusiCares, the stage was set for Mr. Portnow to present to the Musicares board, as well as the Academy board, his own version of the facts regarding the reasons underlying the poor financial results for Person of the Year 2018 and to cover up his conflicts of interest and violation of his fiduciary duties to MusiCares," the lawsuit states. "Ms. Tomarken’s termination also gave him the chance to protect his career and the hostile, discriminatory culture at the Academy and MusiCares."

Tomarken goes on to describe a "boys club" at the Recording Academy centered around Portnow, claiming a sexist culture there "stymied" her career and she was treated even worse as she became older. Every chief executive at the Academy was male and, with the exception of one woman who left in 2008, no female had ever attained the chief executive title in the Academy’s or MusiCares’ history despite. As well, the lawsuit states, only two women ever attained a senior vice president title -- both of whom later left the organization after not receiving further promotions. Tomarken, herself, who attained a vice president title in 2003, says Portnow denied her a promotion to senior vice president during annual reviews in 2015, 2016 and 2017, despite him having no criticisms of her work. In 2017, she says, Portnow referenced her age said when she did decide to retire she would receive a retirement package and a diamond ring from Tiffany’s, along with a celebrated recognition event to honor her accomplishments, just as another female former colleague had received.

Tomarken also claims Portnow tried to hire a male executive in or around 2005 at a higher salary than she was receiving, but the MusiCares board blocked his efforts. In turn, Portnow was forced to match Ms. Tomarken's salary to that of the new male executive.

Meanwhile, the "boys club" around Portnow would often harass Tomarken's all-female fundraising department, she claims. Tomarken says she and her colleagues attempted to bring these concerns to appropriate superiors but corrective measures were not taken.

Portnow announced last year he would be stepping down in 2019 when his contract expires.

The Recording Academy has reposed to Tomarken's lawsuit, saying in a statement from a rep, "The accusations have no merit and we will vigorously defend ourselves."

Last June, following Tomarken's letter, MusiCares announced it had launched a third party independent investigation into her allegations. The Recording Academy rep did not respond to questions about that investigation's findings.

Tomarken is seeking unspecified damages to be decided at trial.


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