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Atlantic Records seeks dismissal of parts of a lawsuit accusing its late founder of sexual assault

By | Published on Tuesday 7 February 2023

Ahmet Ertegun

Warner Music’s Atlantic Records has asked the New York courts to dismiss elements of a lawsuit filed against it in relation to allegations of sexual assault that have been made against the label’s late co-founder Ahmet Ertegun. In particular, Atlantic argues that it can’t be held vicariously liable for all of the legal claims made in relation to Ertergun’s alleged conduct several decades ago.

The major is responding to a lawsuit filed by Jan Roeg, who alleges that Ertegun sexually abused and assaulted her multiple times, over many years from the early 1980s onwards, while she was working with his label – both as a talent scout and a manager with artists signed to the Warner-owned record company.

Roeg is suing now because of New York State’s new Adult Survivors Act, which allows victims of past sexual abuse to file new legal proceedings at any point over the next year, even if previously the so called statute of limitations had prevented them from taking action.

That change in New York law has also led to a second lawsuit being filed in relation to allegations against Ertegun by former Atlantic employee Dorothy Carvello.

Both Roeg and Carvello have sued Atlantic as well as trustees linked to the Ertegun estate. The former wrote in her lawsuit that: “Atlantic’s management knew about Mr Ertegun’s conduct, and his obsessive sexual pursuit of Ms Roeg, which was characterised by volcanic eruptions of anger in the office [and] was obvious to all at the label”.

“Atlantic’s top executives and other management had ample opportunities to observe Mr Ertegun’s drunken, abusive conduct and hateful attitude towards women”, it continued, “including in company meetings in which he would openly brag about and recount in detail sexually exploitative escapades he engaged in backstage at concerts and the like”.

In then stated: “Atlantic, however, did not act to protect Ms Roeg or its other female employees, business partners, and other women who crossed paths with Mr Ertegun in the course of doing business with the label, whether by reining in and disciplining Mr Ertegun himself, or putting in place training or other measures to prevent or impose consequences for misconduct such as sexual assaults and harassment”.

Atlantic doesn’t really respond to that statement in its new legal filing, but does say that it can’t be held liable for all of the legal claims made in Roeg’s lawsuit, mainly citing legal technicalities. She is seeking to hold the record company liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and straight negligence.

But, Atlantic argues in the new legal filing, the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress must be dismissed because the company “cannot be held vicariously liable for Ertegun’s alleged sexual assault. This type of conduct plainly falls outside the scope of any employee’s employment and is engaged in for purely personal motives, precluding vicarious liability as a matter of law”.

Atlantic also argues that the intentional infliction claim is “duplicative of the negligence claim against Atlantic” and should be dismissed on those grounds as well. The same is true, it then adds, of the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim.

That would then leave the negligence claim. Atlantic is not seeking the dismissal of that. Yet. “Atlantic reserves the right to seek dismissal” in the future, it adds, “after Roeg provides more specificity about the nature of that vaguely pleaded claim”.

The trustees with links to Ertergun’s estate have also filed a response to Roeg’s lawsuit. Among other things they dispute if the trusts and trustees can be targeted with litigation of this kind, even with the Adult Survivors Act in force.

“It is a fundamental proposition of New York law that an estate is not a legal entity that can be sued”, the legal filing claims.

“It is equally fundamental that trusts are standalone legal entities with their own rights and obligations, so that the various trusts at issue here are not, as the complaint wrongly asserts, part of Mr Ertegun’s estate; those trusts, while funded with assets Mr Ertegun owned at the time of his death, do not represent him or stand in his shoes”.

It remains to be seen how both Roeg and the courts respond to the respective arguments of Atlantic and the trustees.

Beyond its formal legal responses to Roeg’s litigation, Warner previously said, in relation to the claims made against the founder of a label brand that is still a key part of its operations today: “These allegations date back nearly 40 years, to before WMG was a standalone company. We are speaking with people who were there at the time, taking into consideration that many key individuals are deceased or into their 80s and 90s”.

Seeking to distance itself from the Warner Music of the past – while also being careful to not make any actual admissions about that past – the major added: “To ensure a safe, equitable, and inclusive working environment, we have a comprehensive code of conduct, and mandatory workplace training, to which all of our employees must adhere. We regularly evaluate how we can evolve our policies to ensure our work environment is free from discrimination and harassment”.