Neil Portnow, former head of the Grammy Awards, has been sued by a member of the Recording Academy who claimed he drugged and raped her in a New York hotel in 2018.
The lawsuit, filed in New York state court on Wednesday, accuses Portnow of sexual assault, which the Recording Academy “aided and abetted” to “protect their reputations and silence Plaintiff’s and other women in the music industry.”
The case nods to Portnow stepping down as chief of the institution after his contract expired in 2019 amid self-inflicted scandals. This included him saying in 2018 in an interview following the 60th Grammy Awards in New York City that women needed to “step up” if they wanted to be better represented in the music industry and the termination of his successor Deborah Dugan. The lawsuit alleges that Dugan was fired by the Recording Academy for refusing to bring Portnow back as a consultant after she was told about the alleged rape.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Portnow denied the allegations and said they are the “product of the Plaintiff’s imagination and undoubtedly motivated by Mr. Portnow’s refusal to comply with the Plaintiff’s outrageous demands for money and assistance in obtaining a residence visa for her.”
The Recording Academy said in a statement, “We continue to believe the claims to be without merit and intend to vigorously defend” itself.
While she isn’t named in the complaint, the plaintiff is described as a professional musician who met Portnow in January 2018 in New York, where he was speaking on a panel at an event for the 60th Grammy Awards. The pair remained in touch, with their next meeting taking place in June when she interviewed him in his room at the Kitano Hotel for a magazine story.
According to the complaint, Portnow offered her wine, which she drank and immediately “began feel woozy and had trouble focusing her eyes.” She proceeded to lose consciousness after trying to push Portnow, who was attempting to kiss and massage her body, away.
The lawsuit states, “On separate occasions throughout the night, Plaintiff regained consciousness momentarily. Each time, Plaintiff was in Portnow’s hotel bed. Each time, Portnow was sexually assaulting Plaintiff.”
On one occasion, she awoke to Portnow “forcing Plaintiff’s hand to manipulate his penis” before he “forcibly penetrated Plaintiff’s vagina,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit includes email correspondence between her and the Recording Academy, which allegedly neglected to interview her about the alleged assault despite being informed. She alleges an investigation into Portnow’s “propensity for sexual assault” would have “revealed the unsuitability of Portnow for continued employment.”
In December 2018, the accuser says she filed a report with the New York City Police Department accusing Portnow of sexually assaulting her.
The plaintiff says she continues to suffer “great pain of mind and body, severe and permanent emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation, physical, personal & psychological injuries.” She alleges sexual battery against Portnow, as well as negligent hiring, supervision and retention against the Recording Academy, among another claim for gender motivated violence.
After Portnow stepped down as the head of the Recording Academy less than a year later, Dugan was named as his replacement. She was then placed on administrative leave in January 2020, after which she filed a discrimination complaint against the organization with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Dugan alleged she was fired for refusing to bring Portnow back as a consultant for the Grammys. In June 2021, the case settled.
Portnow said in a statement issued after the filling of the 2020 complaint, “The baseless complaint about my conduct referenced in the EEOC filing was immediately brought to the attention of the board of directors’ executive committee. An in-depth independent investigation by experienced and highly regarded lawyers was conducted and I was completely exonerated.”
Grammy nominations will be announced on Friday, with the event taking place on Feb. 4.