Lawsuit: KC CEO discriminated against women and disabled workers

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Hoefer Welker Architectural Offices, located in Pinnacle Corporate Centre, 11460 Tomahawk Creek, Leawood.

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The workplace at architectural firm Leawood Hoefer Welker was so sexist and hostile toward women that the CEO frequently called subordinates “sexy bitches,” according to a federal lawsuit.

Margaret Fitzgerald, the former director of marketing strategies, describes workplace culture and business leaders as “prejudiced and biased” in a lawsuit filed last week. It was one of two lawsuits filed against the company last week.

Fitzgerald claims that Hoefer Welker violated protections under the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying her the same treatment given to her male colleagues and firing her for a medical condition.

Fitzgerald said her expertise and contribution were often overlooked, while the comparable contributions of her male counterparts received praise. She said she was generally treated with disdain by founding partner and CEO Mitch Hoefer, who often blocked or lambasted her, ultimately leading to her firing in October 2020.

Founded in 1996, the architecture, planning and design firm has more than 140 employees in offices in Leawood and Dallas, according to the company’s website. He was previously called Hoefer Wysocki.

In response to a request for comment, Chief Financial Officer Chris Anderson told The Star in an email that Hoefer Welker is an equal opportunity employer and declined to comment further.

Lawsuit allegations

In her lawsuit, Fitzgerald recounts several examples of CEOs making her feel uncomfortable.

On the days that Hoefer walked into the marketing team’s office, Fitzgerald said he frequently greeted the all-female group by saying, “Hey, hot bitches, what’s going on?!” This language was never used to refer to male subordinates, the lawsuit states.

She also recalled a moment in August 2020 when Hoefer interrupted a boardroom meeting to show off her “Bikini Lives Matter” face mask. Fitzgerald, the only woman in the room, felt “extremely uncomfortable” by the action, according to her lawsuit.

More generally, Fitzgerald said she frequently receives emails and text messages, including late at night, in an angry and emotionally damaging tone. Problems at work eventually put her in a state of depression and left her hopeless and anxious.

“I had nightmares, night terrors and work-related insomnia, which continue to this day,” Fitzgerald wrote in an April 2021 complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. , a federal agency that investigates allegations of workplace discrimination.

Through an attorney, Fitzgerald declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Other behaviors cited as unprofessional included observations about world events that Hoefer would share with his subordinates.

In one example cited, Hoefer is accused of forwarding an open letter criticizing an editorial written by Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. The letter, addressed to Page and written by someone else, mocked the public pressure advocated by Page to change the name of the Washington Redskins football team to something innocuous.

Satirically, the letter argues that the other team names should also be changed – the San Francisco Giants because they “promote obesity” and the Carolina Panthers because of the name’s resemblance to a group of “black activists of the 60s”. The text message chain includes comments attributed to Hoefer encouraging recipients to read the article and citing a suggestion that the Washington team be renamed “The Washington Foreskins.”

Fitzgerald included the message as part of the complaint she filed with the EEOC, which took no direct action but advised her of her right to sue. In the complaint, she described the text as “an offensive, racist and sexually explicit joke”.

Such conduct was part of the company’s larger pattern of being “prejudiced and biased”, argues Fitzgerald.

For example, Fitzgerald said she worked to create a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative, but no action was ever taken. In June 2019, she designed a social media post to celebrate Pride Month and changed the company’s profile page to include a rainbow background, similar to countless other accounts. brand.

Shortly after, Fitzgerald said she had been instructed by Hoefer, the CEO, and Chairman Rob Welker to remove the image.

“They said the pride flag did not reflect the culture of the company or reflect its value,” Fitzgerald’s federal complaint states.

Another harassment described in the lawsuit stemmed from a medical issue Fitzgerald experienced during the latter part of his employment. In October 2019, she caught laryngitis, rendering her unable to speak above a whisper. She continued to have speech problems that lasted for months and said she was often teased because of it.

Hoefer asked her things like “What’s with your voice?” in front of others, including the company’s human resources director, the lawsuit says. And Fitzgerald claims the CEO once yelled “I can’t hear you!” to her as she struggled to speak on a conference call.

Others have reportedly made disparaging remarks about Fitgerald’s disease for months. On May 7, 2020, Fitzgerald was introduced by Ken Henton, one of the firm’s partners, as “Minnie Mouse” from the Disney cartoon — a description that embarrassed Fitzgerald, according to the lawsuit.

No grounds for dismissal, legal proceedings

Fitzgerald claims her abrupt dismissal came despite performing well during her time working for Hoefer Welker.

Under her leadership, Fitzgerald said she helped the company overcome challenges and win accolades. The marketing department has seen no turnover for more than three years following a recent wave of employees leaving the company shortly before his tenure began, according to the lawsuit.

Fitzgerald said she also spearheaded the creation of a new corporate website, which saw a substantial increase in traffic, and the company received awards for its use of social media and marketing strategy. public relations because of his contributions.

Despite those feathers in her cap, Fitzgerald said she continued to be ignored when she deserved a promotion or when she was making a contribution. She also claims that the company has shown a tendency to put more men in leadership roles than women.

An employee in the company’s Dallas office with less experience was given a title similar to the one Fitzgerald wanted despite what she described as a lack of credentials, skills, and experience. She said she was hired at a lower grade even though she was more qualified.

Another example Fitzgerald cited occurred after she asked her superiors for time off to attend a Business Marketing Association meeting that she hoped would help her professional development. She ended up being told to use her personal time and pay the costs associated with the participation out of her own pocket, even though other male professionals were allowed to do similar things, according to the lawsuit.

“He (Welker) said my professional development was of no value to the company,” Fitzgerald wrote in his complaint to the EEOC.

On October 1, 2020, Fitzgerald was working from home when she received a message from Tanya Wilson, the company’s director of human resources, requesting a face-to-face meeting. She went to the office and met with Wilson, as well as Anderson, the company’s chief financial officer.

Fitzgerald said she was not given a reason for her dismissal and was told by Anderson and Wilson that they were “just the messenger.”

Another lawsuit for discrimination

Fitzgerald’s lawsuit is one of two discrimination lawsuits filed against architectural firm Leawood in the U.S. District of Kansas last week.

A separate lawsuit has been filed against Hoefer Welker and its CEO by Joshua Legato, a hiring manager, who claims he was abused and fired after a year of employment because of his extreme fear of heights. Legato was fired on the same day as Fitzgerald and in the same manner, according to the lawsuit.

Through his attorney, Legato declined to comment on the matter.

According to his lawsuit, Legato has a medically diagnosed fear of heights resulting from a traumatic injury he suffered after a fall as a child. Legato met Hoefer regularly in Hoefer’s fourth-floor office, but he said it triggered severe anxiety and panic attacks.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities upon request. Legato requested that the weekly meetings be held in the first-floor conference room instead, a request Hoefer agreed to.

But the lawsuit claims the request soured the relationship between them. Legato quickly “observed a marked change in Hoefer’s behavior towards him” during the first meeting outside the general manager’s fourth-floor office, which featured floor-to-ceiling windows.

During that first meeting outside of Hoefer’s office, and from then on, Legato claims that Hoefer was “no longer cordial or friendly, but rather remarkably formal and aloof” until Legato was finally returned October 1, 2020.

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Bill Lukitsch covers breaking news for The Star. Prior to joining The Star, he covered politics and local government for the Quad-City Times.

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Kevin Hardy covers the Kansas City Star business. He previously covered business and politics at the Des Moines Register. He also worked for newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He graduated from the University of Kansas


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