Colchester realty company faces harassment and discrimination lawsuit

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A Maine woman is suing a Colchester real estate company in federal court, claiming she faced sexual harassment, invasion of privacy and discrimination based on her age and gender while employed there, the lawsuit states.

Chelsea Locke, 27, of Westbrook, Maine, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Burlington earlier this month against her former employer, Hergenrother Green Mountain Properties, the parent company of Keller Williams Vermont.

The lawsuit comes six months after Locke was allegedly fired for lying about her relationship with an affiliated independent contractor despite no policy prohibiting such relationships, the lawsuit says.

Locke asks for a trial by jury and seeks more than $75,000 in damages for loss of earnings and benefits, for out-of-pocket costs and emotional distress.

“We’ve seen the complaint. We deny everything that’s stated in it,” said Heather Rider Hammond, Hergenrother’s attorney. “We intend to defend the case vigorously in court.”

The company has until December 5 to respond to the claim.

Locke alleges KW Vermont repeatedly inquired about her private life and urged she dress more provocatively.

Locke said she was treated differently based on gender, since a man who held Locke’s position for three years was married to a woman affiliated with KW Vermont. The company also took no action against Locke’s boyfriend or his team based on their relationship, the lawsuit states.

“One of the problems is they never made this kind of inquiry of a man,” said Burlington-based attorney John Franco Jr., representing Locke. “They’re treating her, as a woman, differently.”

Franco Jr. said Locke is also alleging age discrimination; although federal law doesn’t consider age in discrimination cases, Vermont does.

Two team leaders before Locke, who both had relationships with KW Vermont affiliates, were both over the age of 40, the lawsuit states.

Locke had operated a real estate business out of her home when she was offered a position with KW Vermont. She moved to Vermont and accepted this January, the lawsuit states.

In February, she was one of nearly a dozen KW Vermont employees to attend an annual convention for agents around the country. While there, Jeremy Asarese, a KW Vermont investor and financial administrator, told Locke to get on the stage and dance, the lawsuit alleges.

Locke said she didn’t want to because she felt uncomfortable, but Asarese persisted, stating, “Have fun and you will be known as a good team leader,” according to the lawsuit.

Locke complied, the lawsuit states, but left after two minutes on stage. Once home, Locke said she received a text message from Adam Hergenrother, CEO and board chairman of Hergenrother Enterprises, which includes KW Vermont, who said Asarese sent him a video of her on stage.

The text read, “Way to dance, girl,” the lawsuit states.

Locke also said she was told she dressed too conservatively and should instead wear “knee high boots with short skirts.”

Based on these experiences, Locke said she lied to Asarese when he asked her in March about her relationship. Locke claims Asarese said he needed to know to defend her if people asked about her personal life.

“He professed that he had no issue about whom she spent time with outside of the office but that she needed to be honest with him about engaging in activities that she wouldn’t be doing with ‘friends,’” the lawsuit states.

The exchange left Locke “sick to her stomach and confused,” the lawsuit states.

Asarese confronted Locke again on April 4. He said he learned of the relationship from “someone who was watching [her boyfriend] come and go from her apartment building,” the lawsuit’s invasion of privacy claim says, and therefore she could no longer deny the two were “doing ‘inappropriate’ things outside of the office.”

Ararese also said Locke had lied about how far “she had gone with [him] sexually,” the lawsuit states.

The next day, Hergenrother told Locke she was fired, the lawsuit states.

Five days later, KW Vermont informed its team via email that “it simply boils down to a question of trust and expectations.”

Locke said she moved back to Maine after she couldn’t find another job in Vermont.

Hergenrother, a Colchester High School graduate, launched KW Vermont in 2009 and now has two offices and more than 125 agents and associates throughout northwestern Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom.

He was featured in this month’s issue of “Business People Vermont” magazine and has received a slew of realtor awards over the last half decade.