Lesbian Boulder woman sues Whole Foods over discrimination allegations

DENVER – A Boulder woman is suing Whole Foods Market, claiming she was forced to resign from her graphic artist position at the Boulder flagship store after she was continually harassed by her co-workers and superiors because she was gay.

Jennifer Johnston filed the discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver Wednesday.

Johnston, who is married to a woman, claims she was forced to eventually resign after she reported the harassment, which she claims was on the basis of her sexual orientation and gender. The defendant in the federal suit is Whole Foods Market Rocky Mountain/Southwest, L.P., which is a limited partnership based in Texas.

Her immediate supervisor, Tawny Duckworth, allegedly asked on several occasions if Johnston had “gaydar” and at one point decided to dress up like her co-workers – emulating Johnston with “negative lesbian stereotypes and biases.” She also allegedly told Johnston her shoes made her “unf---able,” among other negative comments.

According to the suit, Johnston reported the alleged abuse to her general manager in early July 2015. She had started at the location in December 2014 after transferring from a Pennsylvania store.

The suit says the general manager initially wanted to help Johnston, offering to help her switch her schedule around to avoid working with Duckworth and saying he’d conduct a two-week investigation of the allegations.

After two other co-workers were interviewed by the general manager about the harassment, one of them told Johnston she “hated her” and stopped speaking with Johnston. Johnston also reported that incident to the general manager, the suit says.

It says though Johnston was never formally interviewed by the GM during the investigation, she was called into his office about two weeks after the initial report. The GM and a human resources worker told her she was going to be written up for using “inappropriate language” and at one point playing a Lil’ Jon song, which her co-workers deemed inappropriate.

Johnston was also told she wouldn’t be allowed to change her schedule after all.

She was also issued a written warning, allegedly skipping a step in the Whole Foods disciplinary process. An email from the GM attached as an exhibit to the suit says he thought Johnston was being “manipulative and deceiving.”

Johnston resigned the next day, saying work became “intolerable.”

She sought unemployment benefits and found in her unemployment hearing Duckworth had admitted some of the harassment to the general manager, but that the general manager hadn’t asked her about other alleged incidents of harassment.

The suit calls Whole Foods’ investigation “half-hearted.”

Johnston is seeking damages in excess of $75,000, as well as back and front pay, including benefits, and costs for emotional distress.

She and her attorneys have started a petition to garner support for the suit.

A spokesperson for Whole Foods sent the following statement in response to the lawsuit, attributed to Global Vice President of Communications Brooke Buchanan:

"Discrimination in any form is unacceptable to Whole Foods Market. We were notified of this filing today and are looking into the situation."

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