Colonial Williamsburg, woman ordered to arbitrate sexual harassment retaliation suit

Staff Writer

After a Williamsburg woman sued Colonial Williamsburg for alleged retaliation after she reported sexual harassment in the workplace 21-years ago, a federal court judge has ordered both parties to arbitrate the dispute before it will go to a jury.

Judge Hannah Lauck, with the Eastern District of Virginia, ordered Vernell Sutherland and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to attend a settlement conference to avoid a jury trial, according to a court order filed Monday.

In the lawsuit, Sutherland, 71, alleges her job applications to the foundation were “red-flagged” in retaliation for reporting workplace sexual harassment when she worked for the foundation in the 1990s.

Federal court filings from Nov. 8 show Sutherland’s attorneys have pushed for a jury trial before a district court judge instead of arbitration with Colonial Williamsburg.

Attorneys for Sutherland and the foundation are required to contact Magistrate Judge David J. Novak to schedule an arbitration meeting that will occur at least 30 days before any jury trial, the order said.

However, if arbitration fails, it won’t be the first time the two parties failed to reach an agreement.

In 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made a determination in Sutherland’s favor but arbitration between Sutherland and Colonial Williamsburg failed, court filings said. By 2018, the EEOC gave Sutherland a notice, which allowed her to take the foundation to court.

A jury trial has been scheduled for 9 a.m. June 24 in Richmond if the settlement attempts fail, according to court records.

In 2015, Sutherland was qualified for and applied for a position in the human resources department of Colonial Williamsburg, the suit alleges. She was not employed by the foundation when she applied for the position.

But on the day she was scheduled for a first-round interview for the position, Karen Pruden, a human resources employee contacted Sutherland to tell her that her personnel file was “red-flagged” and she was ineligible for hire, the complaint said.

In 1997, Sutherland reported sexual harassment to managers and human resources when Colonial Williamsburg employed her before she was laid off, according to the suit. Sutherland contends her reporting of the alleged sexual harassment resulted in the red-flagging.

When Sutherland contacted other human resources officials for more information they said the flagging was inaccurate but didn’t elaborate, the suit alleges. Sutherland never had an interview.

Colonial Williamsburg rebutted the allegations of retaliation with 11 defense arguments in a court filing, and said Sutherland was ineligible for hire for “prior performance issues, behavioral concerns, and other conduct (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) discovered during and after (Sutherland’s) employment with CWF.”

The foundation’s answer to the suit does not include further information about its allegations that Sutherland was unfit for hire.

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at srobertsjr@vagazette.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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