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Comley v. Media Plannning Group

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 12, 2015



RICHARD G. STEARNS, District Judge.

In this lawsuit, plaintiff Ellen Comley challenges her termination by her former employer, Havas Media (d/b/a Media Planning Group). The individually named defendants were her supervisors at Havas. Comley filed her Complaint in the Barnstable Superior Court claiming nonpayment of wages in violation of the Massachusetts Wage Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 149, § 148, and employment discrimination (age and gender) in violation of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B, together with various common-law claims founded in law and equity. Havas removed the case to the federal district court on diversity grounds. Before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment. Oral argument was heard on May 29, 2015.


Until the end of 2012, what is now known as Havas Media operated as two separate companies. The Media Planning Group USA LLC (MPG) concentrated on planning and placing advertisements in traditional media, such as print, radio, and television, while the Media Contacts Corporation (MCC), focused on digital media. Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (SOF) ¶ 3.

MPG hired Comley in 2005 as a Senior Vice President and Managing Director. SOF ¶ 4. She had oversight of the company's Boston office. Comley's last formal performance evaluation took place on February 27, 2012. Maria Luisa Francoli, the CEO of MPG's North American operations, rated Comley as on, or significantly above, target in every performance category. Pl.'s Ex. 4. A second informal "360" assessment, conducted in August of 2012 after a new CEO, Lori Hiltz, was appointed, praised Comley as "a smart strategic marketing and media leader. Excellent presenter and communicator! Well respected by clients. A creative media thinker.... Work is always better when Ellen's involved." Pl.'s Ex. 5.

During the fall of 2012, Comley discussed with Hiltz[1] the possibility of taking a position at MPG with greater national responsibility. Specifically, they discussed a position as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). In November 2012, Hiltz asked Comley to begin working on CMO-related tasks.[2] SOF ¶¶ 10-17.

Also in November of 2012, global management of MPG and MCC decided to integrate the two companies under the umbrella of Havas Media. SOF ¶ 18. In December of 2012, Hiltz informed Comley that she would be responsible for the management of the combined MPG and MCC Boston and San Francisco offices. SOF ¶ 19. In January of 2013, Hiltz notified Comley that the reorganization plan did not include a position of CMO. SOF ¶ 20. Hiltz circulated an email formally announcing Comley's new managerial duties on February 6, 2013. Pl.'s Ex. 12. Comley was then the oldest employee at the executive level at Havas Media.

Prior to the reorganization, Comley had reported directly to Hiltz. After the reorganization, Comley reported to Andrew Altersohn, the President (a position he had previously held at MCC) of Havas Media. SOF ¶ 22. Comley had significantly more responsibility in her new position. The number of people she oversaw increased from approximately 75 to 150. She assumed, in addition to her prior duties, those previously performed by Thomas Penque, the Senior Vice President of MCC in Boston. Her job was made more difficult by Penque.[3] According to Comley, Penque failed or refused to give her "fundamental documents that she needed to facilitate the transition tasks." Opp'n at 3. Penque remained in the Boston office as Senior Vice President of Media Integration, a position created by Hiltz to give Penque a position in the new organizational structure.[4] SOF ¶ 24.

According to defendants, Comley did not perform well in her new position. By March 2013 (only five weeks after Comley had been promoted), Hiltz was considering terminating her for poor performance.[5] SOF ¶ 46. Among the performance shortcomings that defendants claim led to Comley's termination are her alleged failure to recruit new clients; the mishandling of communications with Fidelity, a major client; her lack of understanding of Havas Media's digital business; and her failure to properly manage her subordinate employees. Defs.' Mem. at 13-17.

Around this time, Havas senior managers (Hiltz among them) began calculating the bonuses that eligible employees would receive under the company's Management Objective Plan (MBO) for the year 2012. The opportunity to participate in the MBO was included in the job offer that Comley had received from MPG in 2005. According to the offer letter, Comley's compensation would consist of a base salary and an MBO bonus "based on individual performance and the company's overall financial success." Pl.'s Ex. 31 at 1. The MBO specified eligibility criteria in two categories: (1) "Green Light Objectives" based on financial targets for the company as a whole; and (2) Individual Quantitative and Qualitative Objectives. Pl.'s Ex. 33. Emails sent in March 2013 between the Senior Vice President for Human Services, Yorlene Goff, and the Chief Financial Officer, Gary McCorry, indicate that Comley's bonus had been initially calculated pro forma at the full amount for which she was eligible (30% of her base pay, or $104, 160). Pl.'s Exs. 37-40.

On April 15, 2013, Goff, at the direction of Hiltz, requested permission from Havas Media headquarters to terminate Comley, which was given on April 18, 2013. SOF ¶¶ 47 & 48. However, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings (which occurred on April 15, 2013), Hiltz decided to postpone Comley's termination. SOF ¶ 49. On April 20, 2013, Hiltz hosted a leadership dinner in New York. Defendants allege that Comley arrived inebriated and inappropriately dressed. (Comley maintains that she was on crutches because of foot surgery and denies any excessive drinking). SOF ¶ 45.

As the month progressed, email exchanges among McCorry, Hiltz, and Goff, reflect a decision to reduce the amount of the MBO that Comley would receive, eventually to nothing at all. See Pl.'s Exs. 41 & 42. Comley was the only senior executive at the former MPG who did not receive an MBO bonus for 2012. Opp'n at 17. On April 25, 2013, Hiltz and McCorry met with Comley and told her that her performance needed to improve. Although defendants characterize the discussion as tantamount to placing Comley on a 30-day Performance Improvement Plan, see SOF ¶ 51, nothing was put in writing as company policy required. Pl.'s Resp. SOF ¶ 51. In May of 2013, the Boston office lost the Carnival Cruise Lines account. Altersohn testified that he had been "blindsided" by the loss of so major a client and blamed Comley for failing to warn him that the account was in jeopardy. SOF ¶ 54.

On June 3, 2013, Hiltz informed Comley that she was being terminated. SOF ¶ 55. At the time of her termination, Comley was 55 years old. Comley was replaced by Debi Kleiman, who Comley alleges was then in her 40's. According to internal emails, Kleiman was considered by defendants to be a "risky" hire because she lacked advertising agency and large scale employee/company experience. Pl.'s Ex. 47. Shortly ...

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