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In-house attorney Josephine Robinson’s suit against Gucci America, Inc., has grabbed headlines because of an allegation that the company tried to underpay the pop star Rihanna. But the bulk of Robinson’s claims are aimed against the legal staff at New York-based Gucci, where she worked as a tax lawyer for more than two years until she was fired last fall. She alleges that she was terminated in part because of her repeated complaints about offensive and racist comments made by her supervising attorney. Robinson filed her suit on June 1 in U.S. district federal court in Manhattan. According to her LinkedIn profile, she attended law school at Pace University and New York University, and worked at the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCoy prior to joining Gucci in March 2008. In addition to Gucci itself, Robinson’s suit names three of the company’s employees as defendants, including her boss, international tax counsel Stan Sherwood. According to his LinkedIn profile, Sherwood was a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and one of its predecessor firms for almost two decades before joining Gucci in 2000. Gucci did not respond to a request for comment for this article. But a spokeswoman told the New York Post, “Robinson’s allegations are completely baseless, and the company will defend itself vigorously against this meritless litigation. The company is confident it will prevail.” Robinson, who describes herself in her complaint as a “dark-skinned, Latin female of West Indian national origin,” says that Sherwood began making offensive comments soon after she started at Gucci. In the summer of 2008, according to the complaint, Robinson was working on a contract for Rihanna, the top-selling R&B singer who was born in Barbados. When Sherwood learned that the artist was from a Caribbean island, Robinson claims that he told her to “‘tax the hell out of [Rihanna]‘ and find a way to allow Gucci to withhold 30 percent of her fee.” Robinson alleges that Sherwood continued to make disparaging remarks and racist comments over the course of her employment. At a June 2010 meeting, for example, she says that Sherwood asked for “black, black, black coffee with three-fifths of equal sugar [sic]. So black coffee, ok? Three-fifths of a packet of equal.” According to Robinson’s complaint, this was a “clear reference” to the racially charged “Three-Fifths Clause” of the U.S. Constitution. Robinson claims that she found little help when she complained about Sherwood’s comments to other Gucci employees. She says that assistant general counsel Stefania Sicari agreed in May 2010 that one of Sherwood’s comments “was inappropriate.” But Robinson says that she became the target of Gucci’s scrutiny after she made two complaints with the company’s human resources manager. According to Robinson, Sicari told her that Cheryl Solomon, the London-based global general counsel for Gucci Group, had directed legal counsel Nicole Marra “to ignore Robinson’s requests for help.” Things quickly went downhill for Robinson, according to her complaint. She was placed on administrative leave later in July 2010 and “escorted out of the building by security.” She returned to work in September, but later that month was hospitalized for anxiety and severe depression, which she says was “due to the harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.” Robinson was placed on medical leave and then administrative leave again, finally receiving a termination notice on November 2. Robinson is being represented by Rick Ostrove, a partner at Leeds Morelli & Brown in Carle Place, New York. According to Ostrove, his client stayed at Gucci because of the bad economy. “Employees in a down market take abuse that they shouldn’t necessarily take,” he says. “She had a job where she was making good money, and she needed to support herself.” Ostrove adds that Robinson tried to resolve her problems at Gucci. But, he says, “They viewed her as a troublemaker and they wanted to get rid of her.” In her complaint, Robinson alleges that Gucci violated U.S., New York State, and New York City civil rights laws, along with the Americans with Disabilities Act. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as lost pay and front pay; she is also asking for injunctive relief, including “the clearing of her personnel file of any writings reflecting wrongful disciplinary actions.” Robinson wasn’t the only in-house lawyer that Gucci fired last year. The company terminated director of legal affairs Jonathan Moss in March 2010 after it learned that he had an inactive law license. Moss’s lapse cause a major headache for Gucci in a trademark infringement suit that it was waging against competitor Guess?, Inc. After Guess learned that Moss wasn’t licensed, it claimed that his communications with Gucci couldn’t be protected by attorney-client privilege. A federal district court judge finally granted Gucci’s request for privilege this past January. According to a profile of Cheryl Solomon in a 2008 issue of ACC Docket, the Gucci Group general counsel supervises more than 30 lawyers and paralegals worldwide.

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