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Former CEO of Eastside Distilling Denies Claims of Workplace Discrimination

Grover Wickersham, who once ran Portland’s award-winning Eastside Distilling, contests allegations that he preferred to work with men and demoted an employee who was pregnant

Masked justice statue holding scale Classen Rafael / EyeEm/Getty Images

In October, two former employees of Eastside Distilling, Justina Thoreson and Laurie Branch, filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against the company and a number of current and former managers, including former CEO Grover Wickersham. In the lawsuit, Thoreson and Branch claim Wickersham had a reputation as someone who “preferred to work with males,” made inappropriate references to the appearances of women at the company, and demoted an employee because she was pregnant.

Six months later, Wickersham has legally responded to the allegations, denying all of the allegations made by Thoreson and Branch and requesting a jury trial. “Ultimately, plaintiffs’ allegations against Mr. Wickersham in this lawsuit — cynically calculated to get the publicity they got — are simply false,” the document reads. The case has been dismissed, but Wickersham says that he wanted his side of the story out in the open. “I wanted to let it get to court. I filed the answer, I wanted to litigate it, and was happy to litigate it,” he says. “I care about my reputation.”

Taylor G. Duty, the attorney representing Thoreson and Branch, says the case has been settled and the judgment of dismissal has been entered, and that the two plaintiffs “stand by everything they alleged in their initial complaint.” The plaintiffs and their attorney chose not to comment on any of the specific details within Wickersham’s filing.

Eastside Distilling, a longstanding Portland distillery, has a widespread presence in Portland’s bars and restaurants; it’s common to spot bartenders pouring the company’s Burnside Bourbon in Old Fashioneds. It’s now the “country’s first and only publicly traded craft distillery,” according to the company’s website; the company recently received a $1.4 million Paycheck Protection Program loan.

Wickersham, a longtime attorney and private investor, served as the CEO of Eastside Distilling from November 2016 to May 2019. He worked closely with Thoreson, who he says he promoted and gave bonuses on multiple occasions. In the original lawsuit, Thoreson claims Wickersham removed her from her role in events because of her pregnancy; she claims that he told her, “When the baby comes, you’re not going to be able to do all this.”

Wickersham denies the allegation. Instead, he claims he consistently and financially supported her as a working mother, saying that he recommended she bring her first child into the office, and eventually persuaded the company pay for monthly childcare, as well as give her an additional $20,000 to pay off medical bills related to her first pregnancy. “The [second] pregnancy was so irrelevant to me I can barely remember it,” he says. Wickersham says the events division was shut down entirely, which is why she was “removed.”

Thoreson’s lawsuit also claimed Wickersham had a reputation as someone who preferred to work with men. In his response, Wickersham denies this claim, noting a long string of women he’s promoted and worked with in his career, such as his longtime law partner. He also mentions that he promoted a woman, Mel Heim, to executive vice president of operations, “the highest operational role in the company,” within his first week as CEO. “Nobody who knows me, or who knew my history, would say that,” he says.

In the October court filing, the plaintiffs describe a 2017 holiday party, saying Wickersham proceeded to get “belligerently drunk,” make inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees, and had a fellow colleague sit on his lap. Wickersham denies any of this behavior, and says the party was generally tame. “I don’t get drunk when I host a party. I’m there as a host,” he told Eater Portland. “It was a family deal, everyone was there with their kids.” Wickersham also states in the response that he attended the event with family. Wickersham provided a recording of a speech he made at the party, referenced in his response, in which he appears lucid.

As for the claims made regarding other defendants in the sex discrimination lawsuit, Wickersham doesn’t want to comment on their behalf. However, he does say that he disagreed with the firing of Thoreson. “Based on my working relationship with Justina, I was very surprised she was terminated,” he says. “I thought she was an excellent employee.”

Eastside Distilling has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Answer and Affirmative Defenses [Official]
Judgment of Dismissal [Official]
A New Sex Discrimination Lawsuit Hits Portland Beverage Company Eastside Distilling [EPDX]

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