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A New Sex Discrimination Lawsuit Hits Portland Beverage Company Eastside Distilling

It claims the company routinely denied top-performing employees promotions and bonuses, then terminated the two employees who spoke up

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Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

Two women have filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Southeast Portland distillery Eastside Distilling, alleging that company leadership made discriminatory comments about female employees, created an inappropriately sexually charged atmosphere, and routinely denied more qualified women promotions over men with little to no experience with spirits. The suit names then-CEO Grover Wickersham, president Robert Manfredonia, and former sales director Armain Austin as defendants.

In the lawsuit, which was filed yesterday afternoon, former employees Justina Thoreson and Laurie Branch paint a picture of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. They also allege that human resources did not respond appropriately, despite several formal complaints.

The lawsuit details an incident at a 2017 holiday party in which Wickersham made several references to the appearances of Eastside Distilling’s female employees, and the office assistant “was repeatedly invited to sit on, and did in fact sit on, Wickersham’s lap for most of the evening.” The lawsuit also claims Wickersham told Thoreson “she would no longer hold a position in Events” after he discovered she was pregnant; according to the lawsuit, his explanation was, “When the baby comes, you’re not gonna be able to do all this.”

Both women claim that “under Wickersham and Manfredonia’s leadership...unqualified male applicants [were] repeatedly hired and promoted over female candidates with more experience,” the complaint reads. “On information and belief, this pattern continues today.”

In one such alleged incident in early 2019, Eastside hired Austin as a sales director, despite his limited experience in the beverage industry and despite the fact that the outgoing sales director “recommended Eastside Distilling consider both Plaintiffs for his position.” The job listing suggested applicants have ten years of “beverage alcohol industry” experience. When asked why Austin was hired, Manfredonia told the plaintiffs that they “need someone that can talk to [Wickersham].”

The complaint goes on to mention several inappropriate comments Austin made throughout his time at Eastside Distilling, allegedly signing work emails “kisses” and repeatedly telling Thoreson that she shouldn’t perform certain workplace duties because it didn’t “fit her lifestyle” as a mother.

Before a five-hour car ride with Branch for a client visit, Austin allegedly said to her, “There is nothing sexier than a woman driving a truck—you have one of those, right?” In the claim, Branch says that his behavior in this instance interfered with work performance.

The lawsuit details another alleged incident at a work dinner at Northwest Portland restaurant Bluehour:

Austin made inappropriate comments to their female server throughout the night including remarking continually about how ‘hot’ she was, and indicating he wanted to have sex with her, to which (another employee) replied, ‘been there, fucked that.’ Upon information and belief, Eastside Distilling later learned that the Bluehour server informed her manager of Austin’s comments and behavior, and Brassard and Manfredonia were advised to investigate further... To Plaintiff’s knowledge, no such investigation was ever performed.

According to the lawsuit, Eastside Distilling fired Austin in May 2019, but he continued on as a consultant; both women were told they would still have to work with him in that capacity. In June, the two employees said they were told they would receive a bonus for their sales performance — a month later, they were terminated. Although Manfredonia allegedly told Thoreson the decision was a part of “downsizing,” the two plaintiffs describe several instances around that time period when management said the company was growing; in fact, two months later, Eastside Distilling acquired Azunia Tequila for nearly $15 million in stock. According to the lawsuit, a brand ambassador overheard an Eastside Distilling sales representative say the firings had been planned for weeks, “indicating that the intent to terminate Plaintiffs arose around the time Plaintiffs began making reports of harassment and discrimination.”

Attorney Taylor G. Duty suggests damages of $280,000 for each plaintiff, for a total cumulative of $560,000. Duty is also demanding a jury trial for the case, as opposed to settling out of court. Eastside Distilling, which operates four tasting rooms around the Portland area, has yet to respond to request for comment.

Update May 14, 2020, 4:27 p.m.: Grover Wickersham legally responded to this lawsuit, denying all the allegations made against him. The case has been dismissed.

Full complaint [Official]
Eastside Distilling [Official]
Previous Eastside Distilling coverage [EPDX]

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