Attorneys for Barnes & Noble said Tuesday it ousted its former CEO Demos Parneros because he sexually harassed a female employee, bullied and belittled subordinates and undermined a potential change in control.
The claims came in response to a lawsuit the former executive filed that claimed the company’s vague reasons for dismissal tarnished his reputation.
Barnes & Noble claims any of Parneros’ actions would justify termination, and its response details the reasons for its action months after it released a press release that simply noted, “violations of the company’s polices.”
When the board fired Parneros in July, the move sparked speculation from national media outlets about whether the ouster was related to the #MeToo movement that has confronted sexual misconduct and imbalances of power between men and women.
In August, Parneros sued the New York-based retail giant, claiming the company issued a press release that falsely stated he had violated company policy. He also claimed Barnes & Noble did so in language and in a manner that it “knew full well was false but would be read as reporting that Parneros had engaged in serious sexual misconduct.” His lawsuit cited the various media reports speculating on a potential sexual harassment scandal.
The response to the lawsuit Tuesday, filed by the company’s counsel Jay Cohen at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, now makes it clear that sexual misconduct allegations were indeed a reason for the termination. The company cited two separate occasions, one in which Parneros allegedly inappropriately touched a female subordinate and another when he allegedly made an advance and used sexual language.
In his lawsuit, Parneros described the alleged incident of sexual harassment involving an executive assistant as “simply an innocuous, less than five-minute conversation about vacationing in Quebec.” His lawsuit said that “any issue with that executive assistant had been positively resolved.”
Barnes & Noble’s response also claimed the former CEO “mistreated and bullied members of the executive team, including one of his direct reports, an officer of the company.” The final reason for termination, the company claims, was that Parneros attempted to sabotage the acquisition of a book retailer “in an effort to preserve his position as CEO and contrary to the board’s clear directive, an inexcusable breach of the fiduciary duties that any CEO owes the company that employs him.”
“Those are the reasons that led to Parneros’ dismissal. Any one of them would have justified the employment action taken by Barnes & Noble,” according to the bookseller’s response. “The company is not responsible for any loss of reputation that plaintiff may have suffered as a result of his termination which, as discussed, was due solely to plaintiff’s misconduct and violation of his fiduciary duties to Barnes & Noble.”
Parneros said in his initial complaint that the accusations of improper conduct were made against a backdrop of a company where top leadership “frequently engaged in inappropriate and unprofessional conduct.”
Debra Raskin and Anne Clark of Vladeck, Raskin & Clark represent Parneros. In an email statement, Parneros said that the response from Barnes & Noble represents continued “false and defamatory attacks” rather than responding to the allegations in the complaint. ”These false allegations are nothing more than an effort to tarnish my reputation and punish me for seeking justice,” Parneros wrote.
He denied the accusations of bullying and said he encouraged the senior member of the management team in question to improve his performance. He also said the claim about undermining the potential sale of the company was not true and he supported the process.
In response to the sexual misconduct complaints, he said, “In its desperation, the company has reiterated an accusation of sexual harassment, which is completely false. The incident in question was a brief conversation with a fellow employee about my vacation in Quebec with my wife and a joking comparison of our heights shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the open office door. That’s it.”
This story has been updated with a statement from Parneros.