Ousted UMG Exec Charlie Walk Files $60M Lawsuit Against Attorney, Claims "Botched" Handling of #MeToo Allegations

Charlie Walk - Getty - H 2018
Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Charlie Walk

On Jan. 30, 2018, Universal Music Group’s head of global compliance Saheli Datta shot off a staff-wide email regarding the company's high-flying executive Charlie Walk. “You may be aware of yesterday’s media reports concerning allegations of conduct by Charlie Walk while he was an executive at Sony. We take allegations of this nature very seriously,” Datta wrote. “If you have something to say, we want to hear it.”

The email came one day after a woman named Tristan Coopersmith posted an open letter on her now-defunct health and wellness blog claiming that the Republic Group president had sexually harassed her 15 years earlier when they both worked at Columbia Records. UMG’s apparent efforts to solicit additional information was highly unorthodox, given that the alleged incident didn’t involve its workplace. The move also violated written company policy, which was created to protect the privacy and confidentiality of all parties involved in harassment allegations.

Within 24 hours, UMG informed news outlets that Walk had been placed on leave and that it had hired boutique New York firm Collazo Florentino & Keil to look into his behavior. A media feeding frenzy ensued. Though the findings of the investigation were never made public, the impression left was strong: Walk was guilty of #MeToo misconduct, according to an explosive lawsuit filed by the famed hit-maker against his former attorney, high-profile Trump pitbull Marc Kasowitz. The legal malpractice suit, filed Thursday in New York state court, says Kasowitz "botched" Walk’s representation and undermined his ability to clear his name, setting in motion his subsequent ousters from Republic and The Four.

“Perceiving Mr. Walk as too big to control, too expensive to keep, and not wanting to lose him to a rival such as Warner, UMG kneecapped him, so that it could both fire him, and make him unhireable by anyone else,” the suit says.

Three years after his career was derailed, Walk is seeking $60 million in damages. Though UMG is not a defendant, the suit — portions of which are redacted — says the music giant “willfully engaged in [Walk’s] public character assassination” and Kasowitz “passively cooperated with UMG, leaving Mr. Walk defenseless” and pressured the executive into signing a one-sided settlement agreement with UMG.

“Charlie Walk was the target of a carefully orchestrated campaign,” said his attorney Bryan Freedman in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “This led to a reckless and damaging rush to judgment without due process, which should have been remedied by this former lawyer. The evidence in Charlie’s favor is overwhelming and he deserved the right to clear his name. This lawsuit will do just that.”

Kasowitz is no stranger to the spotlight and headline-grabbing battles, having defended President Trump for decades on a number of matters including the investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election.

“This complaint is a false and defamatory piece of work which Mr. Walk and his attorneys should be ashamed of and will regret," a spokesperson for Kasowitz stated, when asked for comment on the lawsuit. "Our firm represented Charlie Walk in connection with his separation from UMG following an internal investigation by UMG. We provided Mr. Walk with litigation and non-litigation options and, based on his consultation with the firm and other advisors, he chose a non-litigation course, which resulted in settlement."

The spokesperson added: "Now, because Mr. Walk has been unsuccessful in his professional endeavors, he has filed a patently frivolous complaint against the firm.  We are confident the case will dismissed, at which point we will pursue appropriate remedies against Mr. Walk and the law firms that have filed this egregiously false pleading."

The filing also underscores questions around the case of Walk, who spearheaded Republic Records’ ascent to the industry’s top label in terms of market share by assembling a roster of artists that also included Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, Nicki Minaj, Hailee Steinfeld, DNCE and Lorde. He remains the most prominent music industry executive felled by sexual harassment allegations in the post-#MeToo era. (L.A. Reid is the other notable example.)

Less than a month after Coopersmith’s blog post, which is no longer live because the site is defunct, two additional women — Pam Kaye and Kate Harold — went on the record in Rolling Stone to say they were sexually harassed by Walk in the late ’90s and early aughts at Columbia. Kaye leveled the most damaging claim, that Walk had put his hand down the front of her pants and under her underwear in 2004. Harold said Walk rubbed his erect penis against her at a restaurant in 2006. And Coopersmith, the original accuser, said Walk put his hand on her thigh under a restaurant table and repeatedly made vulgar comments in front of her. Walk denied all of the claims at the time. Coopersmith has claimed she received a settlement. Lawyers for Walk say he "never participated in or was aware of any kind of settlement. This lawsuit will unequivocally prove that."

What remained hidden from public view in early 2018 was just how high the stakes were at the time of the accusations. Behind the scenes, the music industry veteran had been in final negotiations with UMG on a 5-year contract extension worth $20 million, according to the suit. UMG declined comment.

Independent of the lawsuit, THR began looking into Walk’s industry exile back in spring 2020 while reporting out a Time’s Up article that uncovered instances of the influential anti-sexual harassment organization offering to work with accused men in exchange for high fees and donations. In October 2018, Walk was introduced to self-described Time’s Up ambassador Wade Davis, who presented the unemployed executive with a proposed contract for “transitional coaching” services and developing a “re-entry strategy” for $12,500 a month.

In November of that year, former Time’s Up president and CEO Lisa Borders emailed a rep for Walk and detailed the steps that would need to be taken to “rehabilitate” him. “There are many of these same men who now see the light and wish to stand in solidarity with women, seeking a path back into the fold. To reiterate, we applaud this effort, in full support of redemption,” she wrote. “We would welcome a conversation about contributions to The Time’s Up Foundation.” In another email, Borders referred to Davis as the head of Time’s Up’s men’s division. (THR viewed the contract and the emails last year). But the seeming conflicts of interest didn’t end there. Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund was supporting Coopersmith, Kaye and Harold and was paying a PR firm to assist them. According to the suit, that same firm also represented Coopersmith’s business interests and UMG.

A source close to Davis says the relationship with Walk was never finalized. Sources say Walk turned down the overtures. Current Time's Up reps say the outreach was not authorized, and Davis is not affiliated with the organization.

Before his fall, Walk had a strained relationship with his UMG boss, Republic co-founder Monte Lipman, who was being frequently upstaged by his president and was known to have the label’s PR team call Page Six to rework a printed gossip item if Walk appeared in a more prominent position than him.

UMG’s January 2018 email to staff resembles what happened to Universal Pictures marketing chief Josh Goldstine just one month later. At the time, NBCUniversal’s Jeff Shell and Donna Langley sent a studio-wide note saying Goldstine was being suspended and investigated for “inappropriate conduct.” Goldstine was fired three weeks later, with a #MeToo cloud hanging over his head. Two years later, he won a $20 million legal judgment against the studio in arbitration. (He now has the top marketing job at Warner Bros.)

In Walk’s case, Fox also launched an investigation but found no complaints or wrongdoing, the lawsuit claims. Still, he was quickly cut from the music competition show.

The male-dominated music industry is notorious for bad behavior. And yet, unlike the film industry, there has been very little in the way of a #MeToo reckoning to date. Even Russell Simmons, who has been accused of rape by multiple women, has appeared as a guest on such platforms as Tidal. Reid, who was the subject of a Sony investigation before any harassment allegations were made public, is working with artists like Jennifer Lopez at his new Hitco Entertainment label.

There's no question Walk's earnings took a major hit. He went from pulling down a multi-million dollar a year base salary to earning just $19,000 in 2019, according to the suit. In February, his fledgling distribution and A&R company Music Mastery partnered with video and audio streaming platform LiveXLive Media.

Despite the detailed allegations of his accusers, Walk’s suit maintains that during his 20 years at Sony, “he had never been the subject of any complaints of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior towards a single woman — let alone Coopersmith."

Perhaps more relevant, Walk did not receive an HR official complaint during his five-year tenure at Republic, according to the suit. “Since joining UMG in 2013, Mr. Walk had not once been the subject of a Human Resources complaint of any sort — especially sexual harassment.” The suit goes on to say UMG failed to make any effort to substantiate the claims. And, once he signed their settlement agreement at Kasowitz’s urging, he was bound by a non-disclosure agreement that left him unable to defend himself against the charges.

Walk's treatment appears to deviate from that of other executives at the company in terms of maintaining confidentiality amid an investigation. In an intriguing detail, the filing notes: "Mr. Walk is aware of prior instances in which other UMG employees had been accused of and fired for sexual harassment, but the allegations and disciplinary actions taken against such employees were kept quiet."

Writes Freedman and co-counsel Jeffrey Eilender, Erik Groothuis and Michael Brodlieb in the suit: "UMG 'cancelled' Mr. Walk based on no credible evidence and in order to settle old professional scores."

March 25, 2:30 p.m. Updated with a statement from a spokesperson for attorney Marc Kasowitz.