One of Maine’s largest wine and beer distributors is battling allegations in court this week from a female employee who says the company fosters a “sexist environment” where women are paid less than men.

Michele Tourangeau filed a civil complaint against Nappi Distributors in January 2020, alleging that the company paid her a smaller commission rate than her male colleagues because she’s a woman. Tourangeau also alleged that Nappi didn’t pay her for work she performed while on maternity leave, and retaliated against her for filing a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, which ruled in October 2019 that she had a right to sue.

Nappi has denied all of the allegations of discrimination. But the company has not disputed that Tourangeau was hired for less than her male colleagues and will now have to prove to the jury that she was paid less because of a company-wide policy shift.

The case speaks to larger issues of fostering an inclusive workplace, Tourangeau’s lawyer, Danielle Quinlan, said Monday in her opening statement in U.S. District Court in Portland.

“The culture at Nappi is a working, sexist environment,” Quinlan said, adding that jurors will eventually hear testimony that Nappi allowed an owner to bring a stripper to the office, and allowed management and staff to exchange “overtly sexist emails” joking about women doing the same jobs as men, but earning less pay.

“These are real people in positions of power,” Quinlan said. “Michele wasn’t willing to overlook it … she stood up for herself. That’s why we’re here today. … These laws, the Equal Pay Act, don’t mean anything if employees don’t stand up for themselves.”


Tourangeau is the first of two women who have filed complaints against Nappi. Helena Donovan, who filed a complaint in March 2021, is making similar allegations, saying she was subjected to harassment that got worse after she reported it. In court filings, the company has denied Donavan’s claims as well. While Donovan no longer works for Nappi, Tourangeau is still on the sales team.

Nappi is a family-owned company based in Gorham. Its history dates back to the 1930s, when John Nappi became one of Maine’s first liquor distributors following the end of prohibition. Several Nappi family members, including its president, Frank Nappi Jr., still run the company and its roughly 200 employees.


When Tourangeau was hired in 2015, she became the company’s first female sales representative. She was offered a 2% commission rate, while her colleagues on the sales team – all men – earned 3%.

At the time, Tourangeau said, she agreed to the 2% rate because she was also promised a base salary to help balance out her largely seasonal route in southern Maine, which entailed fewer sales and therefore less commission in the winter.

But then Nappi notified Tourangeau in 2018 that they wanted to eliminate her base salary. Tourangeau raised her concerns with a newly hired supervisor, Quinlan said, even sending him an article on the gender pay gap throughout the alcohol sales industry.


That supervisor asked Tourangeau if she was “trying to play the girl card,” Quinlan said.

Her lower commission rate was part of a companywide shift to address “over-inflated” sales representative earnings, Nappi’s attorney, John Wall, said Monday. Before lowering the commission rate to 2%, Wall said, there were sales representatives earning more than some management positions.

Wall said that all of the sales representatives hired since that change, men and women, were offered the exact same, while the men Tourangeau first worked with were “grandfathered” in at a higher rate because of their decades of experience with Nappi and the businesses on their sales routes.

As for Tourangeau’s base salary, Wall said the company agreed to gradually reduce it after Tourangeau’s objections, but paused once the coronavirus pandemic hit and many of her accounts were closed for the shutdown.

The company has also made significant improvements to Tourangeau’s route, Wall said, even offering her “one of the highest grossing retail accounts at Nappi,” a Hannaford’s. He also disputed allegations that Nappi ever retaliated against Tourangeau, that the company failed to pay her for work she did while on leave, and that Nappi fosters a sexist work environment.

“In actuality, you’re going to hear about the many women who work at Nappi to keep the place going,” Wall said.



Tourangeau joined Nappi in 2015, bringing years of restaurant and sales experience with her.

Tourangeau and her husband were running a bed-and-breakfast in Ogunquit when a contact in the wine sales industry recommended she apply for a job at Nappi. Tourangeau sent her resume and spoke with the company several times at the end of 2014 before they made their offer.

Tourangeau testified she was still working while on maternity leave in June 2016 – she was in constant communication with another employee who was filling in on her sales route that month, and that co-worker visited Tourangeau’s house to talk about work once a week.

And Tourangeau said she made several sales while on maternity leave to generate extra pay through an incentive program Nappi set up for sales representatives. She said she had discussed it with her supervisor before taking time off, and was under the impression she would be paid for that work.

But when she emailed to ask when she would receive the money, Human Resources Director Christine Fox said the company wouldn’t be paying her. Fox told Tourangeau that she thought the woman was lying about the previous agreement, Tourangeau testified Monday.


“I was counting on getting that money,” Tourangeau said.

In December 2017, Fox called her into her office to ask her about unreported damage to the side of her company vehicle. Tourangeau said she apologized profusely, but Fox kept asking questions and criticizing her for the state of her car. As Tourangeau began crying, Fox suggested she adjust her medications, Tourangeau said.

“This woman is not going to let me out of here until she breaks me,” Tourangeau testified. “So I let her break me.”

It didn’t occur to Tourangeau until she arranged for a meeting with her supervisor later that the meeting with Fox might’ve been related to Tourangeau’s incentive pay complaints.

“It was shocking to me,” Tourangeau said. “I’ve had several professional positions in my life with different companies. … I was shocked at the way she treated me and spoke with me.”

Tourangeau is expected to return to the stand Tuesday morning and answer questions from Nappi’s attorneys. Throughout the rest of the week, attorneys are also expected to call upon several Nappi officials and existing and former employees, including Fox.

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