Former Color Labs engineer Adam Witherspoon, an early employee of the much-hyped photo-sharing app, has filed a civil suit against Color Labs and cofounder Bill Nguyen. Witherspoon is accusing Nguyen of a host of unsightly instances of misconduct, including deliberately creating a hostile work environment that threatened Color employees; threatening violence against Witherspoon's son; and barring Witherspoon from meeting with Apple representatives to discuss potential employment opportunities when Color sold key company assets to the giant in September.
Although Witherspoon just filed, his attorney Harmeet K. Dhillon, of San Francisco law firm Dhillon and Smith LLP, tells Fast Company Color and Nguyen have been fully aware of Witherspoon's claims for three weeks. So why did Witherspoon choose to file a claim today? Dhillon says it's because today Color is distributing its remaining assets to its shareholders, who are receiving checks or wire transfers from Color paying out the value of that stock, presumably including shareholders who sit on Color's board. Witherspoon, who was offered a severance package on October 11, has not been an employee of the company for roughly a month, Dhillon says. He's also the only one of roughly 20 employees on Color's technical team who is not joining Apple.
Dhillon says the compensation a plaintiff can get for this kind of workplace offense "can be several times an employee's salary." She says just how much that compensation is depends on factors such as how egregious the offenses are and how likely they are to affect the plaintiff's ability to find work. For a case like this, she says two to three times salary would be reasonable.
But that compensation is not related to the "intentional infliction of emotional distress," she says. "[The Witherspoons are] nothing short of traumatized by having to work in this hostile, atrocious work environment where people are getting fired with glee, people are being threatened with impunity, the board is turning the other way, and my client has to actually move his kid out of one school to another."
According to the complaint, Nguyen, "with the acquiescence of Color's board":
- "Created an extremely hostile, unsafe, and harassing atmosphere at Color, including bringing an armed crony into the workplace to threaten and intimidate employees cooperating in an investigation into Nguyen’s financial and other improprieties."
- "Routinely humiliated, harassed, ridiculed, exploited, and punished employees, who departed in droves."
- "Nguyen specifically retaliated against Witherspoon by blocking his job opportunities at Apple, offering him a de minimis severance package, disparaging him in the workplace, and communicating to others that Witherspoon was being punished for cooperating with an investigation into Nguyen supervised by Color’s outside counsel, Gunderson Dettmer."
Further, Witherspoon details a domestic squabble, involving his young son and Nguyen's sons:
"Plaintiff Witherspoon and Defendant Nguyen’s families also spent a significant amount of personal time together. Their sons, the same age, once attended the same elementary school in Palo Alto. They attended many social gatherings together involving the children. Eventually, however, their sons could not get along. The conflict between their sons caused a strain in Plaintiff Witherspoon and Defendant Nguyen’s relationship, as Nguyen and his wife Amanda blamed Plaintiff Witherspoon’s son for the lack of agreement between the boys."
Witherspoon goes on to allege treatment bordering on child abuse by Nguyen:
"One early morning, [Witherspoon's wife Jessica] Jordan walked into the room where their children were staying and witnessed Nguyen kicking Nguyen’s older son in the stomach. Plaintiff Witherspoon believed that Nguyen’s corporal punishment of his own son in front of others was meant as a show of force to intimidate Witherspoon’s son, because Defendant Nguyen later explained that he had punished his older son for the Witherspoon son and the older Nguyen son allegedly having excluding the younger Nguyen son from play."
"In or around September 2011, the Nguyens invited the Witherspoons and [former Color Chief Financial Officer Alyssa] Solomon to dinner. Solomon’s children repeatedly reported the older Nguyen son’s misbehavior. Jordan and Solomon both witnessed Defendant Nguyen grab his son by the skin of the back of his neck and throw him down the hall.
"Defendant Nguyen stated that the Witherspoon son’s behavior was out of control and a bad influence on his son."
Witherspoon also alleges harsh social media treatment from Nguyen, particularly nasty given Color's bread and butter:
"Shortly thereafter, Defendant Nguyen 'unfriended' Plaintiff Witherspoon on the social networking site, facebook. This was highly unusual, because the mobile application that Color based its business model on relied on facebook interaction."
Witherspoon claims the office culture was far from encouraging, as well:
"In or around September 2011, Color employee Andre Charoo inadvertently had some information leaked to the press prior to the launch of a new Color product. Defendant Nguyen ordered other Color employees to gather and listen in on a phone call with Charoo who was crying and unaware other Color employees were listening in. In this phone call, Nguyen screamed at, humiliated, and fired Charoo over the phone. After the call, Nguyen announced this incident to the entire Color team as an example of what would happen to them if they made a mistake. Defendant Nguyen had in the past hurled numerous profanities against Charoo, such as telling him to 'Shut the fuck up, dumb ass' in a meeting."
Witherspoon also alleges Nguyen's corporate malfeasance:
"In or around late 2011, Solomon began noticing discrepancies in Color’s finances. Upon information and belief, Defendant Nguyen was spending corporate funds on numerous personal items, such as charging personal items on Color’s American Express card and putting his family’s nanny, Sally Orr, and his family’s Lake Tahoe‐based ski instructor, Hillary Governer, on Color’s payroll."
Then there's the issue of the alleged gun thuggery, which Witherspoon claims was the result of a personal friendship between Nguyen and Corey Dunphy, an employee of the Office of the Inspector General:
"Upon information and belief, Corey Dunphy works for the Office of the Inspector General ("OIG") and regularly carries a firearm. Dunphy is a personal friend of Defendant Nguyen.
Defendant Nguyen bragged to Color employees—including Plaintiff Witherspoon and Indelicato—that Dunphy was able to put employees who crossed Nguyen on no‐fly lists, have those employees’ credit ruined, and was otherwise able to get those employees into other types of trouble, by virtue of Dunphy’s position at the OIG."
We'll report back with additional information as we learn more. In the meantime, the full complaint is below.
20121119 Complaint All