HIV-Positive Gay Man Settles $20 Million Discrimination Suit With Major Advertising Agency

His supervisor drew lewd pictures of him and other gay staffers.

One of the largest marketing companies in the world has settled a lawsuit filed by an ex-employee who claimed he and other gay staffers were harassed about their sexuality and HIV status.

Matthew Christiansen, a former creative director with DDB New York, initially filed his suit anonymously in 2015. But he went public after DDB and its parent company, Omnicom, alleged threatened to fire him and sue him for libel.

In court filings, Christiansen (above) claimed supervisor Joe Cianciotto repeatedly accused him of having AIDS just because he was gay—in one instance, in front of a client.

After another gay employee objected, Cianciotto reportedly told him, “Yes, you’re gay, but Matt is super gay. He sleeps with everyone. He must have HIV, right?”

Christiansen, who claimed the harassment started immediately after he was hired 2011, said he felt “paralyzed with fear” that his coworkers would shun him over his status. “I feared that he had access to my medical records because I am HIV positive, [which is] a private matter,” he added. “I felt emotionally and physically paralyzed with fear as a gay man being discriminated by his own supervisor.”

Christiansen’s attorney, Susan Chana Lask, alleged in an open post on LinkedIn that Cianciotto drew pictures of gay male employees fornicating and one of Christiansen naked and defecating.

Another of the images, which were circulated in the office and on Facebook, depicted Christiansen naked with an erect penis, celebrating marriage equality.

Susan Lask

Lask called the situation “the most disturbing and long lasting case of harassment” she’d seen in her career. “The sexually explicit pictures of employees drawn by Omnicom and DDB’s management is bad enough, but to accuse gay men of having AIDs just because they are gay is demented.”

According to the LinkedIn post, other staffers reported Cianciotto “repeatedly asked a gay employee to describe gay sex, [said] that he wanted to have gay sex with him, and… accused a gay male of having sex with children then killing them in a cabin in the woods.” One gay male employee told HR he went to DDB New York CEO Peter Hempel, but that Hempel defended Cianciotto and threatened the complainant.

Christiansen claimed he never received an apology and was instead asked to the agency. (A DDB rep told Adweek he “had never been asked to leave the agency nor threatened with litigation.”)

In May 2015, Lask filed a $20 million lawsuit on Christiansen’s behalf, claiming he suffered “discrimination, harassment and victimization… because of an HIV disability.” She argued the company’s actions were a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees against discrimination based on sex, race, nationality or religion. (Cianciotto; Hempel; Omnicom; DDB New York; and its current CEO, Chris Brown, were all named in the suit.)

Getty Images

Using Title VII protections to address sexual-orientation discrimination has become increasing popular, but with mixed results: In fact, a District Court Judge dismissed Christiansen’s case in 2016, but Lask successfully appealed to the Second Circuit Court last year.

Briefs supporting Christiansen were filed by the EEOC, the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and 128 members of Congress, including Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders—the first time Congress weighed in on Title VII’s applicability in anti-LGBT discrimination suits. But last week Christiansen settled out of court with Omnicom.

Terms of the settlement have not been made public, though it is known Christiansen will not be returning to DDB. “Matt has happily moved on in his career,” Lask told Adweek, “with the best wishes of all involved.”

Omnicom is ranked as one of the top four largest advertising agencies worldwide, with more than 74,000 employees in 100 countries.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.