The former head of the Grammy Awards was sued on Wednesday by a woman who said he drugged and raped her in a New York hotel room in 2018.
The suit, filed in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, accuses Neil Portnow, who stepped down as chief executive of the Recording Academy in 2019, of sexual battery, and accuses the academy — the nonprofit group behind the Grammys — of negligence.
The suit does not name the woman, but it describes her as an instrumentalist from outside the United States who once performed at Carnegie Hall. The court papers include redacted correspondence she had with the academy in 2018 regarding her complaint.
The case harks back to a tumultuous period in the Grammys’ recent history, when Mr. Portnow left the institution after saying that women in music should “step up” to get greater recognition in the industry. His successor, Deborah Dugan, was abruptly terminated in what she called retaliation for accusing the organization of a range of abuses, including a cover-up related to the allegation made in the new suit. Those incidents shook the Recording Academy and the wider music industry, but the woman who accused Mr. Portnow had been publicly silent until now.
“Neil Portnow gives lip service to women as standing up,” said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a lawyer for the plaintiff. “But he does a disservice to every woman and every musician who is being oppressed by him and others. This is not just about Neil Portnow and not just about the Recording Academy, but about the culture in the music and entertainment industry and its doublespeak about rape and abuse.”
In a statement, a representative of Mr. Portnow called the allegations false, and said they were “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 latest incarnation” of her accusations, he said, “offers a ‘new and improved’ story, padding it with even more outrageous and untrue allegations.”
The Recording Academy said in its own statement: “We continue to believe the claims to be without merit and intend to vigorously defend the Academy in this lawsuit.”
In the suit, the plaintiff says she met Mr. Portnow at a Recording Academy event in January 2018, when the Grammys were held in New York. He invited her to the ceremony, and later told her he would return to New York in the spring. She asked to interview him then for a publication she had started. That June, when Mr. Portnow arrived in the city, he told her to come to the Kitano Hotel, on Park Avenue, where he was staying.
According to the suit, Mr. Portnow greeted her in the lobby and brought her to his room. There he gave her some Grammy memorabilia — including a toiletries travel set and a CD with a signed note — and offered her a glass of wine. She drank but he did not, she says in the suit, and she “began to feel woozy,” had trouble focusing her eyes and began to lose control of her body. She asked about the wine but Mr. Portnow ignored her, and when she said she wanted to leave he responded that there were no taxis available to take her home.
The suit says that Mr. Portnow then told the woman, “I have been thinking about you for a very long time,” before she lost consciousness. She awoke several times throughout the night to find him sexually assaulting her, including “forcibly” penetrating her, according to the suit. She still felt woozy the next morning, and exited when Mr. Portnow left the room to attend a meeting.
According to the suit, the woman “was confused and conflicted given his prominence and stature in the music industry and the Recording Academy.” It says she filed anonymously to protect her privacy.
Mr. Portnow is described in the court papers as having ignored several attempts by the woman to contact him afterward. Several months later, she emailed officials at the Recording Academy, telling them she had been sexually harassed by Mr. Portnow. In an interview with The New York Times, the woman’s lawyers said she gave her account in detail to Grammy officials.
The complaint includes an image of an email from a lawyer for Mr. Portnow, sent in November 2018, relaying what it said was a personal message from Mr. Portnow to the woman.
“Please know that I have always respected you in every way at all times, both professionally and personally,” the message reads. “I remember your indicating your interest and belief in the teachings of Buddha and I found this saying which resonates with you now: ‘Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.’”
The woman later filed a police report naming Mr. Portnow, according to the suit. But lawyers for the woman said in an interview that the district attorney’s office, without elaborating, had declined to prosecute.
The woman’s accusation was first made public in 2020, when Ms. Dugan made a brief mention of it while challenging her dismissal from the Recording Academy.
Mr. Portnow’s “step up” remarks two years earlier — made at the peak of the #MeToo movement — were widely condemned, and inflamed longstanding complaints that the Grammys had failed to properly recognize female artists. A number of prominent women in the music industry called for Mr. Portnow’s resignation.
Ms. Dugan, hired as a change agent, had worked at the academy for only five months before she was placed on leave, days before the 2020 ceremony. The academy said she had mistreated an employee. But in a discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Ms. Dugan called her firing retaliation, and her complaint included mention of an unnamed “foreign recording artist” who had accused Mr. Portnow of rape.
On Wednesday, Mr. Portnow’s representative said that after the woman’s initial accusation, he “immediately enlisted the Academy’s HR Department to review the nonsensical text messages and emails that he made immediately available. An outside independent investigation, led by top-tier lawyers, reviewed all relevant texts, emails, interviewed witnesses and found absolutely no proof to support any of the allegations.”
But the woman’s complaint this week said that she was never interviewed as part of any academy investigation. The suit accuses the academy of negligence, saying that the organization failed to monitor Mr. Portnow as its employee, and failed to properly investigate the woman’s accusation or take appropriate action against Mr. Portnow. He left the Grammys in July 2019, at the conclusion of his employment contract.
The lawsuit comes just a few months after the Grammys revealed the financial cost of its conflict with Ms. Dugan. As part of its most recently disclosed federal tax return, filed in June, the academy said it paid Ms. Dugan a total of $5.75 million in its 2021 fiscal year, which ended in July 2022, calling it a legal settlement and severance.
Since Mr. Portnow left the academy, he has also received a substantial payment. According to the most recent disclosure, in the year that ended in July 2022, he received a bonus of $800,000.