Colonial Williamsburg plays defense in sexual harassment retaliation lawsuit

Staff Writer

A Williamsburg woman and former employee of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation alleges the nonprofit group retaliated against her for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace decades ago, but the foundation said in court filings there’s strong legal precedent on their side.

In a lawsuit filed in the United States District Court of Eastern Virginia, Vernell Sutherland, 71, alleges her job applications 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.

In 2015, Sutherland was qualified for and applied for a position in the human resources department of Colonial Williamsburg, the suit alleges. Sutherland 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.

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

Colonial Williamsburg’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

Colonial Williamsburg rebuts 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.

In 2017, the EEOC made a determination in Sutherland’s favor but initial arbitration between Sutherland and Colonial Williamsburg failed, the court filings said.

In March 2018, the EEOC gave Sutherland a notice, which allowed her to sue the the Foundation, according to the court filings.

She has continued to apply for jobs at the foundation because she said she fundamentally believes in its mission: to feed the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story. Sutherland said she left a bequest for Colonial Williamsburg in her will.

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.

She remembers the day, it was a week before Princess Diana died, she said.

In 1998, Sutherland filed a discrimination and retaliation complaint with the Virginia Council on Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but didn’t pursue the complaints as she moved from Williamsburg to Washington D.C. for work, she said.

In the years since Sutherland returned to Williamsburg in 2014, she has continued to apply for positions at Colonial Williamsburg, she said.

“Colonial Williamsburg is bigger than any of the individuals,” Sutherland said.

Colonial Williamsburg maintains in the lawsuit that they didn’t rehire Sutherland for any reason other than those cited.

Now, Sutherland’s looking for compensation — she requested a jury trial in her lawsuit and said at the end of the day she wants to work for the foundation again.

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

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