Lost Wrongful-Termination Case at UMPG Shows Difficulty in Proving Workplace Misconduct
Months after taking over as chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) in 2015, Jody Gerson was told that the head of the Latin division had allegedly hit a female colleague on the face…
Months after taking over as chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) in 2015, Jody Gerson was told that the head of the Latin division had allegedly hit a female colleague on the face with a rolled-up sheaf of papers. Based on an investigation that found he had violated corporate policy, she and her team decided to fire him.
It was “not something I wanted to do, but it’s something I felt I had no choice but to do,” Gerson later testified before an arbitration panel. “It’s my job to protect each and every person at my company from feeling any kind of emotional distress or violation, and it’s my job to keep my employees safe.”
Another woman witnessed the incident, but the fired executive, John Echevarria, contended that he was “unaware” he had even touched her. He sued for wrongful termination and won in June, largely because his contract didn’t explicitly mention Universal Music Group’s workplace-violence policy, according to the arbitration panel’s decision. UMG hasn’t paid and has moved to vacate the decision. Echevarria’s team responded with a motion for sanctions, which is pending.
The case, detailed in the 78-page decision provided to Billboard, highlights the legal difficulty companies can face when it comes to policing harassment. With workplace misconduct at the center of public debate, Billboard this fall conducted a qualitative survey of female music executives, and most respondents said they had been sexually harassed during their time in the business. Echevarria wasn’t fired for sexual harassment, but a spokesman says that UMG “maintains a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any kind.”
“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on individual personnel matters — especially given the confidential nature of this arbitrator’s opinion. However, we can say generally that we are committed to providing employees with an environment that is respectful and safe and will maintain that commitment even where an arbitrator might consider factors other than substantive questions of behavior in reaching a decision,” the UMG spokesman said in a statement.
Echevarria was sent to harassment training in 2004 by UMG after allegedly sexually harassing a co-worker while serving as president of Universal Music Latino, though he denied doing so; money was taken from his bonus to pay the woman’s claims. In 2013, he shamed the UMPG colleague he allegedly struck by referencing her pregnancy in business discussions. On a phone call, Echavarria told his UMPG colleague in Spanish what she heard as: “You allow yourself to get fucked and that’s why you are pregnant,” before bringing up her pregnancy again in the same context months after she’d complained and he’d apologized in an email. Echavarria, a Spaniard, testified that both times he’d meant: “You let [business associates] fuck with you and you’re pregnant. Be careful.”
But the final straw came when he entered her office with the rolled-up papers as she was typing, encouraging her to put another female business associate in her place. Though there is disagreement about the degree of contact that transpired, Echevarria should have “exercised due care with respect to the papers under his control and not contacted [her] face or any part of her,” the arbitrator wrote.
Still, the panel found that the paper incident alone — the sole cause UMPG had given for Echevarria’s termination — technically didn’t breach his contract, which didn’t mention UMG’s harassment policies.
“His managerial skills were generally devoid of understanding, compassion, or empathy for his subordinates. At times he was arrogant, rude, and crass. He yelled and screamed which made for a tense workplace,” the decision reads. “Somewhere along the way forgot that he held an important job with an important company in the American workplace.”
But “they gave him a raise for being like that every year. He was a strong manager,” says his lawyer, Richard Wolfe, of Wolfe Law Miami. “I’m very proud that we were able to prove the truth – John [Echevarria] was our only witness.”
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of Billboard.