New York Models Sue Agent for Sexual Harassment

Three New York women, described in the media as “aspiring models,” have filed a lawsuit against their former agent. They allege that, while his agency represented them, the agent subjected them to ongoing sexual harassment, unwanted physical contact, and withholding of pay for modeling jobs. They are suing to recover damages and the money they earned modeling, as well as, they say, to prevent the agent from treating any other models in the way he allegedly treated them. Their lawsuit raises issues of sexual harassment and other difficulties faced by many New York fashion models. It also raises questions of the plaintiffs’ employment status relative to the defendant and how the laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace relate to them.

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Lead plaintiff Hayden Holt, according to a story published by Jezebel, moved to New York City in August 2011 at the age of nineteen to pursue a career in modeling. She signed with an agency known as Emmanuel Models New York, owned by Aristeo Tengco. The other two plaintiffs, Jessica Lee and Kayla Hill, both seventeen years old, also signed with Emmanuel. Tengco reportedly founded the agency in 2007 after working as a women’s clothing designer. The small agency’s client list includes at least one former America’s Next Top Model contestant, and its marketing makes broad reference to Biblical influences.

The agency placed Holt in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side owned by Tengco. Models living with their agents is reportedly a common occurrence in the fashion industry, although it can serve to conceal sexual abuse of models. Holt says that Tengco touched her inappropriately on her second day in New York, and that this continued into September. She rejected his advances every time, and she says that Tengco always apologized but persisted in unconsented touching and requesting private meetings with her. Lee and Hill make very similar allegations, saying that Tengco attempted to exert near-total control over them and made even casual gestures seem sexual. They each lived with Tengco in the apartment for up to four months.

In addition to the claims of harassment, Holt is accusing Tengco of withholding her earnings. She says he has refused to give her about $3,000 she earned in modeling jobs. He also reportedly sent Holt’s family a bill for $4,000 listing a “portfolio fee” and “coaching fee.” Both Lee and Hill allege that Tengco withheld their earnings and, while they lived in the Upper East Side apartment, would not give them money to purchase food.

Holt’s lawsuit, filed in late March and joined by Lee and Hill shortly afterwards, names both Emmanuel and Tengco as defendants. The suit describes Tengco as the plaintiffs’ employer, which is unusual in the modeling world. Models often work as independent contractors, and typically have a contractual relationship, as opposed to an employment relationship, with an agent. The law offers far greater protections against harassment and discrimination for employees than for independent contractors, but it is not yet clear how a court will interpret the relationships in this case.

The New York sexual harassment lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent victims of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, fighting to protect their rights. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

New Survey Shows Extent of Sexual Harassment in the New York Fashion Industry, New York Employment Attorney Blog, May 15, 2012
New York Waitress Sues Private Club for Sexual Harassment, New York Employment Attorney Blog, March 29, 2012
New York Fashion Models Form Rights Group to Fight Sexual Harassment, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 7, 2012

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