Business Law & Compliance

How not to get sued by your PA – lessons from celebrity lawsuits

14 min read

16 October 2015

Deputy Editor, Real Business

From Lady Gaga forcing her personal assistant to sleep in the same bed as her, to the boss who asked to snort cocaine from his PA's "exposed breasts", there is certainly a lot that businesses leaders can learn about avoiding lawsuits from the celebrity world.

One of the biggest basics that every employer needs a firm grasp on is to mind what is being said or written to, or in front of, employees. This becomes top priority when it comes to personal assistants – no one will have more ammunition in a lawsuit than a PA as it’s their business to know everything about you and your firm. 

Take, for example, when ex-law student and personal assistant Rani Abraham exposed sleazy emails written by Premier League boss Richard Scudamore.

She claimed to be “humiliated, belittled and disgusted” by his correspondence with business associates. Abraham said: “I had a duty to speak out. If I didn’t then I’d somehow be condoning his behaviour.”

It’s a valuable lesson to learn. Don’t dish out policies for employees to display respectable behaviour when you can’t do the same. In the shared emails there were jokes about “gash”, “big-t****d broads” and “female irrationality”. Another message referred to fending a female member of staff nicknamed Edna “off their shaft”.

“It would have been far easier for me to just try to forget about those emails but I couldn’t,” she said. “Scudamore has a huge amount of influence and is paid a vast sum of money, but has behaved wrongly. And for those people who’ve attacked me for saying they were just ‘jokes’ I wonder how they would feel if their wife, girlfriend or daughter had to read messages like that. And how would they feel if those messages were written about their wife, girlfriend or daughter?”

But while such tales of inappropriate language and behaviour normally induces a media frenzy, nothing quite packed as big of an impact than when PA Lotti Bluemner accused investor Erik Gordon of coercing her into exposing her breasts in front of crowds so he could snort cocaine off them.

In her lawsuit, Bluemner claimed she babysat his prostitutes when he passed out, and that his requests did not stop even after she got pregnant. 

Of course, the crucial factor here is that he humiliated her in public and crossed the line of respectability. No employee is going to feel valued when subjugated to such tasks. It also alludes to the fact that sexism still prevails in the workplace, and that employers shouldn’t – even as a joke – make such comments.

This was also highlighted in May 2015, when singer Robbie Williams and his wife Ayda Field were sued for sexual harassment by former assistant Gilles De Bonfilhs. His lawsuit claimed the actress “walked around in various stages of undress, shared details about her sex life, questioned him about his sex life and asked him to answer questions and comment on her body”.

Of course, the couple denied it and launched a counter lawsuit. But whatever the case may be, it comes to show that employers shouldn’t flirt with a lawsuit!

Employers are obligated to maintain a safe and secure workplace, and that includes preventing sexual harassment

Create a clear, concise sexual harassment policy, which defines sexual harassment, explicitly sets forth that sexual harassment is not tolerated, explains the consequences and sets forth a process for reporting and investigating complaints. It is also worth training your employees about sexual harassment, and making it a regular practice to talk to employees and ask them about their working environment to make sure it stays harassment free.

Essentially, lead by example. Make sure you’re just as well-versed with the policies you set out. And just use plain logic – don’t walk around without clothes on and don’t ask about sex stories. Don’t follow Lady Gaga’s footsteps in asking your PA to sleep in the same bed as you either – her assistant maintained that she was made to sleep in the same bed as her, “because she did not sleep alone.”

Remember that sexual harassment is classified as a form of discrimination – which are arguably harder cases for employers to win.

In the case of personal assistant Alex Gibson, she learned law just so she could sue her former company on the grounds of discrimination.

Gibson resigned after being repeatedly taunted over her dyslexia and disabilities from a biking accident. And with no money to pay for a solicitor, she instead decided to enrol on a law degree and fight for justice herself. 

She said: “I was distraught and couldn’t believe the way I’d been treated, so was determined that I would defend myself. I got my inspiration from the Erin Brockovich film. She won against all the odds and I was determined to do the same. I’m just happy I stood up to the bullies and I won.”

Bullying in the workplace has been a major focus as of late, but it stands to reason that if employees shouldn’t bully colleagues, then employers should do the same. Once again, bosses need to lead by example, so it wouldn’t hurt to read up on what discrimination truly entails.

And it goes without saying that if discrimination is a no-no, then assaulting a PA is definitely out of the question. It sounds rather logical – but quite a few celebrity PAs have brought such claims to court. The most recent was Naomi Campbell’s Amanda Brack, who suggested that Campbell had attacked her on three continents.

Campbell has a long history of assaulting her staff. She allegedly slapped Brack repeatedly in the face and hit her with her Blackberry in Brazil after a piece of luggage was left behind, ripped up her passport in Morocco and pushed her around in her New York flat.

When Brack filed suit in 2014, Campbell was already facing an assault charge for throwing a mobile phone at another employee – Ana Scolavino – leaving her with a cut on her head which needed stitches. And in 2000, Campbell pleaded guilty to assaulting former assistant Georgina Galanis with a mobile phone two years earlier.

Another former assistant, Gaby Gibson, sued her in June 2014 and again in November 2015 for assault, discrimination, battery and personal injury, alleging Campbell kicked or punched her on the back on the head and called her names.

The moral of this story is that you shouldn’t go around throwing phones at PAs…

Of course, alongside physical abuse comes mental abuse.

Marvel mogul Stan Lee – his wife and daughter included – are facing a lawsuit from a former personal assistant who claimed he was verbally abused while working for the family

Shawn Lukaszewicz suggested he was “constantly reminded how lucky he was to work for the most powerful people in the entertainment industry, and he, therefore, should ‘suck it up’ and be thankful for the abuse.” 

It was also suggested that in mid-November, Lee’s daughter told Lukaszewicz to deliver some mail to the house. When he rang the bell, Lee answered the intercom and told him to “get the f**k out and never ring [the] d**n doorbell again.”

Heinz Leymann, a psychologist and medical scientist, identified such behaviour as mobbing and described it as “psychological terror” involving “hostile and unethical communication directed in a systematic way by one or a few individuals mainly towards one individual.” This includes withholding information, isolation, badmouthing, constant criticism, circulation of unfounded rumours, ridicule and yelling.

The biggest way to negate such charges, according to Leymann, is to reinforce that bullying is intolerable at work – no matter what form it takes. If a company ignores, condones or even instigates such behaviour, it can be said that the victim is indeed being “mobbed.” More often than not, the targets have been esteemed members of the organisation, so it’s also in the company’s best interest to nip it in the butt by creating a close-knit and respectable culture. Once again, setting up some form of policy regarding bullying in the workplace is a must.

Then there’s the famous issue of overtime pay – as was highlighted by the drawn-out battle between Gaga and O’Neill. In court documents, the former assistant testified: “I was by her side virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

O’Neill sued the singer and claimed nearly $400,000 (£258,850.25) in overtime pay. For her services, O’Neill got a $75,000 (£48,534.42) annual salary, but O’Neill wanted to be paid for allegedly working 24/7 to do things like get up in the middle of the night to change a DVD. 

Similarly, Kim Porter is being sued by a former assistant who claims she made her work like a slave up to 99.5 hours each week. According to PA Amanda Jansen’s lawsuit: “Pursuant to the employment agreement, Jansen was to work 99.5 hours per week. These hours included 13.5 hour shifts on Monday through Friday and 24 hour shifts (eight hours of which were unpaid) Saturday and Sunday. Thus, Jansen did not have regularly scheduled days off.”

Among the duties Jansen was ordered to perform, were cooking for the household and staff, going to Costco and “cleaning the floor if the family dog urinated, or defecated in the house.”

Prior to being fired, lawyers for Amanda say she conveyed her concerns about being short-changed and was dismissed shortly thereafter.

Overtime generally means any work over the basic working hours included in your contract. Regulations say that most workers can’t be made to work more than an average of 48 hours a week, but they can agree to work longer. This agreement must be in writing and signed by you.

There’s no legal right to pay for working extra hours and there are no minimum statutory levels of overtime pay, although your average pay rate must not fall below the National Minimum Wage. Your contract of employment should include details of overtime pay rates and how they’re worked out.

Over time pay aside, a breach of contract is a fairly common cause of dispute between an employee and an employer. For example, De Bonfilhs accused Williams and his wife of wrongfully firing him, alleging a breach of employment contract. 

In general, it is usually worth pursuing an informal line of redress first, before considering more formal options. One good reason for employers to ensure that employment contracts are reviewed or tightened up is that while employees have a duty of good faith and fidelity to employers, without express contractual provisions, this isn’t likely to be enough.

It is also worth understanding the importance of care in drafting any clauses. Employment contracts are commonly interfered with by courts or tribunals on the basis that clauses are unfair on the employee. There are many instances where restrictive covenant clauses have been struck down or watered down because they are considered excessive.