Woman, CW apparently settle suit over alleged retaliation for reporting sexual harassment

Staff writer

Nearly six months after a Williamsburg woman sued the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for alleged retaliation after she reported workplace sexual harassment decades ago, the two sides have reached an undisclosed settlement.

Judge Hannah Lauck of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, signed off on a joint motion to dismiss the case with prejudice after the two parties reached a settlement, according to a court order filed Monday.

Vernell Sutherland and the foundation will each pay their own costs and legal fees, the order said.

A Colonial Williamsburg Foundation spokesman declined to comment. Sutherland’s attorneys did not return multiple requests for comment during the duration of the case, however attorney Julia Quinn of the civil rights law firm Heller, Huron, Chertkof and Salzman provided a letter from the foundation.

The letter, dated Jan. 23, announced the lawsuit was resolved “amicably and to the satisfaction of both (the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) and Ms. Vernell Sutherland.”

In the lawsuit, Sutherland, 71, alleged 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.

The letter from Davelin Forrest, Colonial Williamsburg’s chief human resources officer, indicated Sutherland could seek employment from the foundation going forward.

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

However, both parties were ordered to arbitrate the dispute before it would continue in court. A jury trial scheduled for 9 a.m. June 24 in Richmond has been canceled, according to court records.

Sutherland and the foundation had difficulties in previous attempts to reach a settlement.

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.

In 2015, Sutherland was qualified for and applied for a position in the human resources department of Colonial Williamsburg, the suit said. 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, 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 contended her reporting of the alleged sexual harassment resulted in the red-flagging.

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

Colonial Williamsburg initially rebutted the allegations of retaliation with 11 defence 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 only response to the suit did 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.

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette
66°