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Former employee claims racial discrimination in suit against Handel and Haydn Society

David Snead, the Handel and Haydn Society’s president and CEO. The Boston Globe/Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

A former employee of the Handel and Haydn Society is suing the arts organization claiming she was fired after complaining that CEO David Snead used language she considered racist.

Leslie Kwan, who was acting director of marketing at the Handel and Haydn Society between July 2016 and March 2017, claims in a lawsuit that she was let go after objecting to Snead’s use of the terms “coon’s age” and “cotton pickin’ mind” in conversation. Kwan, who is African American, is suing Snead and the organization for discrimination and harassment.

In a statement provided to the Globe Tuesday, the Handel and Haydn Society said “the allegations are without merit, and we intend to vigorously defend our position in court.”


In her lawsuit, filed Oct. 4 in Suffolk County Superior Court, Kwan claims she told Snead she was offended by his language and that it wasn’t appropriate for the workplace. Soon after, Kwan says, she was informed that she would not be hired for the post of vice president of marketing and communications. Kwan claims Snead told her she was not a good “fit” for the Handel and Haydn Society, and she was eventually terminated.

Kwan says that after she was fired, she told the H&H Society that her termination was “discriminatory and retaliatory.” In response, she alleges in the lawsuit, Snead created a “note to file” documenting alleged deficiencies in Kwan’s job performance in an effort to justify her termination after the fact.

Founded in Boston in 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society bills itself as the oldest continuously performing arts organization in the United States.

In its statement to the Globe, the organization said Kwan had been invited to apply for the full-time marketing job, but declined and later resigned.

“H+H wished Ms. Kwan well in her future endeavors and offered her a modest period of transition assistance,” the statement reads. “In response, Ms. Kwan requested a payment equal to one month’s wages for every month that she worked, and H+H declined.”


The organization claims Kwan subsequently filed a charge of discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and “demanded substantially more than six months of pay,” but later withdrew the charge and filed the lawsuit.

Kwan’s attorney, Michael Ackerstein, said his client’s lawsuit speaks for itself and he has no comment on the Handel and Haydn Society’s response.

Snead, who’s been president and CEO of the Handel and Haydn Society since 2015, previously worked as the vice president of Marketing, Brand and Customer Experience at the New York Philharmonic. And before that, he led the marketing programs of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Guthrie Theater, Milwaukee Symphony, and Hartford Symphony.

Kwan is a harpsichordist who earned a master’s degree from the Mannes College of Music in New York. From from 2005-2010, she performed with the New World Symphony and later founded the chamber orchestra L’Académie with choral conductor Michael Barrett as general director.