Lawsuit alleges sexual harassment by business owner

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BENNINGTON — A former associate of Manchester-based Maple Leaf Rentals Inc. has filed a discrimination and sexual harassment suit against the business and its owner, Brian Foerster.

Lauren Speath, 36, describes a series of incidents and comments by Foerster over several months last year, constituting "a pattern of unwelcomed sexual overtones and harassment," and sex discrimination.

In a response, Foerster, who is in his 60s, denies the allegations and contends that Speath engaged in a close but platonic relationship with him "in an effort to insinuate herself into the business," and that she was a contract worker, not an employee of the business.

Foerster resorted to "threats, intimidation and harassing behavior, including but not limited to comments," and refused to pay money owed to Speath, according to the suit filed in January in Bennington Superior Court Civil Division by her attorney, D. Patrick Winburn.

The harassment included "repeated verbal as well as physical acts, statements and innuendo by defendant Brian Foerster," the suit contends.

The suit alleges she "rebuffed and attempted to avoid defendant Brian Foerster's comments and actions," while "making efforts to preserve her job and business relationship with the defendants all the while defendant Brian Foerster was using his position, influences and economic leverage over plaintiff in an attempt to have sexual relations with her and/or to be his romantic partner."

The suit describes incidents approximately from August through December 2017. Maple Leaf Rentals, which Winburn stressed is not connected to Maple Leaf Realty in Bennington, handles seasonal and other property rentals in the Northshire area.

The suit contends that Speath "complained multiple times," seeking to have the business "address the harmful, harassing, embarrassing, and emotionally distressing conduct but to no avail."

Speath alleges she suffered "humiliation, embarrassment, loss of her job, insecurity, loss of self-image, loss of enjoyment of life, feelings of powerlessness and inferiority, mental anguish and loss of income in the past and future."

The complaint seeks damages, including punitive damages, as well as attorney fees, costs and other relief.

Allegations denied

In a response, filed this month by attorney Joel Iannuzzi of Cleary, Shahi & Aicher, of Rutland, Foerster contends that Speath "fails to state a cause of action insomuch as at all times hereinafter mentioned, plaintiff was an independent contractor."

He contends that Vermont's Fair Employment Practices Act protections do not apply because Speath was not an employee, and that the claim should be dismissed.

In addition, the response claims that Speath "encouraged and engaged in a mutual, non-physical intimate relationship with defendant Brian Foerster in an effort to insinuate herself into the business of Maple Leaf Rentals and to further her career," and on many occasions, "she advised Brian Foerster that she loved him, kissed him and hugged him, all in an effort to draw closer to him."

Foerster also claims that "termination of plaintiff's independent contractor agreement was occasioned by her demonstrated lack of business skills, focus, motivation, skills, drive and internal resources necessary to succeed in the property rental business."

The allegations in the suit describe a continuing pattern of unwanted advances by Foerster against Speath, including repeatedly telling her that he loved her; asking Speath to marry him; attempting to kiss her; flaunting his financial success "to attempt to attract plaintiff, Lauren Speath, into having a romantic relationship with him;" inviting her on overnight trips to New York City or elsewhere; that he "spied on her;" attempted to "get her to break up with her boyfriend," and "attempted to get her alone with him under the pretext of inviting her to view rental properties."

Several of the more than 30 comments the suit alleges were made to Speath by Foerster include: "This whole thing is a big threat to me," and "I'm in love with a woman I can't have."

In another filing in the suit, Foerster says he met Speath in June 2017 and she had some experience in the real estate business and was interested in furthering her career. After meetings and discussions, "it was agreed that Ms. Speath would engage in rental agent services as an independent contractor to Maple Leaf Rentals," Foerster stated.

He says that Speath worked on a commission basis, set her own hours, never worked out of the Maple Leaf Rentals office at his home and had her own cell phone.

Iannuzzi also filed a motion for summary judgment for the defendants, arguing in part that the Fair Employment Practices Act is "not applicable to [Speath] as a non-employee and her action fails as a matter of law."

The attorney states that Foerster and his wife, Barbara Foerster, who is president of the 17-year-old company, "are nearing retirement and decided to either sell the company or select an individual whom may have the capacity to operate the business. This was the premise behind forming a business relationship with Speath."

"We believe that the court will grant our pending motion for summary judgment and dismiss this meritless lawsuit," Iannuzzi said in an email.

Winburn said he believes the suit meets the Vermont statutory requirements concerning harassment, which he said are well established, dating to the 1970s.

He also filed earlier this month a motion for a protective order from the court to prevent Foerster from attempting to contacting Speath directly or through others.

The motion contends that Foerster "has continued direct and indirect contact with the plaintiff by emailing and/or texting her and/or her friends in an effort to rekindle his contact with her."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.

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