Former Employee Files Transgender Discrimination Lawsuit Against Wine Spectator

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By: Kerana Todorov 

A former Wine Spectator employee has filed a transgender discrimination lawsuit against the magazine, according to court records.

April Louis, a transgender woman, alleged she was harassed and discriminated at the magazine, where she worked in Napa as an assistant tasting coordinator, according to the complaint filed Tuesday in Napa County Superior Court. Louis also wrote articles for the magazine.

The complaint names Wine Spectator’s parent company M. Shanken Communications Inc. of New York City; MaryAnn Worobiec, Wine Spectator’s Napa bureau chief and senior editor; and Laura Zandi, president and chief operating officer at M. Shanken Communications.

Louis, 28, who was hired in February 2022, also claims the magazine failed to take the necessary steps to protect her, according to the complaint and lists transgender discrimination, harassment, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation and other allegations.

Louis said she was “transparent” before she was hired “regarding her need for time off of work to continue to receive her gender-affirming medical procedures and her need for accommodations upon her return to work as she recovered from each procedure,” according to the complaint.

Louis underwent her first gender-affirming surgical procedure in April 2022, according to the lawsuit. The second surgery took place in July 2022. Louis, who came out as transgender in May 2020, returned to work 11 days after the first surgery and 2½ weeks after the second surgery, according to the lawsuit.

In November 2022, Louis underwent her third gender-affirming surgery, according to the lawsuit, and resumed work in early January 2023. She communicated with her employer the times of her follow-up appointments and her “needs related to rehabilitation and recovery,” according to the lawsuit.

After her third surgery, Louis said she was “severely struggling with her recovery and experiencing significant psychiatric and psychological disabilities.” She notified her employer of her need for psychiatric treatment and of her psychologist’s referral to an inpatient facility for psychiatric care, according to the lawsuit.

But on Feb. 9, 2023, Louis alleged she was placed on “involuntary administrative leave.”  On Feb. 17, Louis was terminated, effective immediately, during a videoconference meeting with Worobiec and Zandi, according to the lawsuit. Louis received a termination package on that day; her medical insurance coverage was cancelled.

Upon her return from her second surgery in July 2022, Louis was notified a work performance review had been scheduled. “Based upon the timing of the review, among other factors, (Louis) felt that the review was targeted and calculated,” according to the complaint.

Louis told Worobiec she was being treated differently than other employees seeking “essential medical care,” according to the lawsuit. A few weeks after she was hired in 2022, Worobiec told Louis that Zandi had called and raised concern about the time off work Louis would need after gender-affirming medical procedures and recovery.

Louis also alleged the magazine retaliated against her after she reported that a reviewer violated blind- tasting protocols and wine scoring policies, according to the lawsuit.

Paper bags cover wine bottles during blind tastings. Beginning in October 2022, Louis alerted Worobiec that a wine reviewer “repeatedly” changed wine scores after opening bags “mid-flight” – after the wines “were no longer ‘blind’ in the wine tasting process,” according to the complaint.

Worobiec sided with the reviewer, according to the lawsuit. Louis’ complaints contributed to her termination; the lawsuit alleged.

Throughout her tenure, Louis said she felt targeted because she was transgender, according to the lawsuit. Louis alleged she was also subjected to “obscene language, demeaning comments, and slurs,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged senior Worobiec “directed multiple offensive and harassing comments and questions” to Louis, according to the court filing. In one incident, Worobiec allegedly told Louis during the spring or early summer 2022, that she did not like “drag queens” and that they made her “uncomfortable.”

“Everybody deserves a work environment free of harassment,” one of Louis’ attorneys said on Thursday. “We’re proud to represent her,” said Alexis Gamliel, an attorney with Gamliel Law PC of Los Angeles.

Littler, a labor and employment legal firm, is counsel to M. Shanken Communications and the other defendants. “The allegations in the complaint are without merit and our clients plan to vigorously defend the case,” Littler attorney A. Michael Weber said in an email Friday.