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Defamation over defecation? Rumor spurs Hollywood agent’s wrongful-termination lawsuit

A former partner at Hollywood talent agency ICM Partners has sued his onetime employer for wrongful termination, discrimination, retaliation and harassment after bizarre incidents insinuating that he purposely left feces on the bathroom floor of the agency’s New York office over the summer.

Spencer Baumgarten, 58, who served as co-head of ICM’s motion picture department in Los Angeles, filed his lawsuit Friday in L.A. County Superior Court against ICM and the company’s then-chief of human resources, Cindy Ballard. In his suit, he claims that during a video conference, Ballard subjected him to “incredibly weird and incredibly awkward” questioning about defecating on a bathroom floor during a July business trip to New York, which resulted in defamation and his eventual firing.

“Confused and embarrassed by Defendant Ballard’s repeated questions about his use of the bathroom, Baumgarten outright asked Defendant Ballard if something happened in the restroom. It was then that Defendant Ballard informed Baumgarten that feces were found on the bathroom floor, and the bathroom was reported to have been found in that condition after Baumgarten left the bathroom,” said the complaint, obtained by The Times on Wednesday.

“Baumgarten was shocked and immediately offended by Defendant Ballard’s questioning and insulation and asked Defendant Ballard whether she was insinuating that he was responsible for the defecation in the bathroom, to which she affirmed. Baumgarten sat there humiliated and mortified,” the complaint said.

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Baumgarten also said he explained to Ballard that “he is a germophobe and a clean freak and was more than embarrassed by her questioning.” In his suit, he also claimed that Ballard’s questioning took place shortly after a few agents from a different department — at least one of whom was allegedly disgruntled — were fired, placing potential blame on them for the incident.

The complaint includes several communications with ICM staff about the incident and indications that the story went viral within the company. Several of the employees expressed sympathy for Baumgarten, who repeatedly tried to clear his name and blame Ballard for handling the situation irresponsibly.

He also included an email that served as an official complaint to human resources and detailed “the humiliation and embarrassment he felt” during his meeting with Ballard, characterizing her questioning as a “ridiculous witch-hunt interrogation.” He added that he was terminated “without cause” a week after informing the company’s lawyer that he would be seeking his own counsel over the matter. (The firing occurred 16 months prior to the end of his four-year contract with ICM. Had he been terminated over the incident, that would have been with cause.)

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A spokesman for ICM Partners told The Times on Wednesday that the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Among his complaints, Baumgarten lists discrimination, whistle-blower retaliation, violations of the labor code, defamation, compelled self-defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and negligent hiring, supervision and retention. He’s demanding a jury trial and a variety of damages that exceed $25,000. He also wants to be reimbursed for the summer business trip to ICM’s New York office that cost him approximately $12,000.

The bathroom incident was investigated by ICM Partners and was deemed unintentional, an industry source confirmed to The Times. Baumgarten, who was also cleared during that investigation, was let go over performance issues unrelated to the incident, the source said.

The lawsuit follows high-level management changes at ICM. Executives Kevin Crotty and Sloan Harris were promoted to the newly created roles of copresidents. The agency recently disclosed in an internal memo that Chief Operating Officer Justin Dearborn and Ballard had resigned but would continue in their positions through the end of the year.

Dearborn, the former chairman and chief executive of Tribune Publishing, which used to own The Times, joined ICM in February. Ballard was hired by the talent agency in March 2018 as head of human resources after serving in a similar role at Tribune.

The ICM spokesman said Ballard’s departure was not related to the allegations in the case.

A summons has been issued to Ballard, and the case has been assigned to Judge Michael P. Linfield.

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