Note: This article contains references to sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing.
Neil Portnow, the former chairman and chief executive of the Recording Academy, has been accused in a new lawsuit of sexually assaulting a female musician in a New York hotel room in June 2018, The New York Times reports.
The lawsuit, obtained by Pitchfork, also names the Recording Academy as a defendant, and the plaintiff, identified as JAA Doe, says that the organization “knew or should have known of Defendant Portnow’s sexually assaultive behavior towards women,” and that the academy “aided and abetted Portnow’s conduct to protect their reputations and silence Plaintiff’s and other women in the music industry who have stood up and spoken up.” The plaintiff claims to have suffered severe emotional, physical and psychological distress, including shame, guilt, economic loss of earning capacity, and emotional loss.
“We continue to believe the claims to be without merit and intend to vigorously defend the Academy in this lawsuit,” a statement from the Recording Academy reads. Pitchfork has reached out to Doe’s attorneys for comment.
The suit was filed pursuant to the Adult Survivors Act, legislation passed last year that created a one-year window for survivors of sexual assault that occurred when they were over the age of 18 to sue their abusers, regardless of when the abuse occurred. The window closes on November 24. The statute of limitations in New York was raised to 20 years in 2019, but did not apply retroactively. The statute was previously limited to five years.
The unnamed woman is described in the suit as an instrumentalist from outside the United States and was and still is a resident of New York. After debuting at Carnegie Hall in 2015, they were invited to become a voting member of the Recording Academy. In the complaint, the plaintiff describes how she met Portnow at the Paley Center for Media in New York City in January 2018, where he spoke on a panel at an event for the 60th Annual Grammy Awards. Later that year, the plaintiff said she asked to interview Portnow for her magazine and he invited her to meet him at his hotel to conduct the interview.
According to the complaint, Portnow offered the plaintiff wine at the hotel, which she drank, but he did not. After consuming the wine, the plaintiff said she began to feel woozy and had trouble focusing her eyes. She claims she attempted to leave the room but was unable to walk or control her body, and Portnow told her there were no taxis available to take her home. She says after Portnow attempted to kiss and massage her body, she lost consciousness as he was placing his hands around her waist. The plaintiff says she regained consciousness several times throughout the night, and each time Portnow was sexually assaulting her. She says that throughout the assault, Portnow assured her it was okay, saying, “you are the boss.” According to the lawsuit, after Portnow left the hotel room for a meeting the next morning, she gathered her belongings and left the room.
The complaint details how Portnow ignored attempts by the plaintiff to contact him after the alleged assault. The plaintiff also emailed officials at the Recording Academy, claiming Portnow had sexually harassed her. The Times reported that her lawyers detailed the account in full to Academy officials, and that after filing a police report naming Portnow, the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute.
After his controversial comments in 2018 imploring women to “step up” to overcome inequalities in the music industry, Portnow was ousted from his post as chairman. In 2020, Portnow’s successor Deborah Dugan accused the Academy of covering up the alleged assault—and claimed she was fired in retaliation—but the alleged victim had not come forward until now.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual assault, we encourage you to reach out for support:
RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline
1 800 656 HOPE (4673)
Crisis Text Line
SMS: Text “HELLO” or “HOLA” to 741-741