Lawsuit: Kansas City CEO wore ‘Bikini lives matter’ mask, discriminated against women

·7 min read

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

Margaret Fitzgerald, the former director of marketing strategies, describes the workplace culture and company 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 Hoefer Welker violated protections outlined under the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying her the same treatment afforded to male colleagues and by firing her over a health issue.

Fitzgerald said her expertise and input was frequently discounted, while comparable contributions from her male counterparts received high praise. She said she was generally treated with disdain by founding partner and CEO Mitch Hoefer, who often stonewalled or lashed out at her, which ultimately led to her termination in October 2020.

Founded in 1996, the architecture, planning and design firm has more than 140 employees across offices in Leawood and Dallas, according to the company’s website. It 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 speak further.

Lawsuit’s allegations

In her lawsuit, Fitzgerald recounts several examples of the CEO making her uncomfortable.

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

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

More broadly, Fitzgerald said she received frequent emails and text messages, including late at night, that were angry in tone and emotionally damaging. Problems at work eventually put her in a state of depression, and left her feeling hopeless and anxious.

“I have had nightmares, night terrors, and insomnia related to work, which continue to this day,” Fitzgerald wrote in a complaint filed in April 2021 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 behavior cited as unprofessional included observations about world events Hoefer would share with his subordinates.

In one cited example, Hoefer is accused of passing along an open letter criticizing an editorial penned by Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. The letter, addressed to Page and written by someone else, made fun of the public push advocated by Page to change the name of the Washington Redskins football team to something inoffensive.

In satirical fashion, the letter argues other team names should be changed too — the San Francisco Giants because they “promote obesity” and the Carolina Panthers because of the name’s resemblance to a group of “militant Blacks from the 60’s.” The text message chain includes observations attributed to Hoefer encouraging recipients to read the piece and quoting a suggestion that Washington’s 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 notified her of the right to sue. In the complaint, she described the text as “an offensive, racially charged, and sexually explicit joke.”

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

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 altered the company’s profile page to include a rainbow background, similar to countless other branded accounts.

Shortly after, Fitzgerald said, she was instructed by Hoefer, the CEO, and President Rob Welker to take down the image.

“They stated the Pride flag didn’t reflect the Company’s culture or align with its value,” Fitzgerald’s federal complaint states.

Other harassment outlined in the lawsuit stemmed from a medical issue experienced by Fitzgerald during the latter part of her employment. In October 2019, she caught laryngitis, rendering her unable to speak above a whisper. She continued to have problems with her speech that lasted months, and said she frequently was the subject of ridicule because of it.

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

Others allegedly chimed in with disparaging remarks about Fitgerald’s months-long ailment. On May 7, 2020, Fitzgerald was introduced by Ken Henton, one of the firm’s partners, as “Minnie Mouse” of the Disney cartoon — a description that left Fitzgerald feeling embarrassed, according to the lawsuit.

No reason for dismissal, suit claims

Fitzgerald claims her abrupt termination came despite good performance over the time she spent working for Hoefer Welker.

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

Fitzgerald said she also led the creation of a new company website, which saw a substantial rise in traffic, and the company received awards for social media use and public relations strategy because of her contributions.

Despite those feathers in her cap, Fitzgerald said she continued to be passed over when she deserved a promotion or when providing her input. She also claims the company has displayed a pattern of putting more men into leadership roles than women.

One employee with 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 rank even though she was more qualified.

Another example cited by Fitzgerald occurred after she had asked her superiors for leave to attend a Business Marketing Association meeting that she hoped would further her professional development. She wound up being told to use personal time and pay the costs associated with attending from her own pocket even as other male professionals were granted permission to do similar things, the lawsuit said.

“He (Welker) stated that my professional development had no value to the firm,” Fitzgerald wrote in her complaint to the EEOC.

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

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

Another discrimination lawsuit

The lawsuit filed by Fitzgerald is one of two discrimination suits brought against the Leawood architecutre firm in the U.S. District of Kansas last week.

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

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

According to his lawsuit, Legato has a medically diagnosed fear of heights stemming from a traumatic injury he suffered after a fall as a child. Legato met with Hoefer on a regular basis in Hoefer’s fourth-floor office, but he said doing so 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 asked that the weekly meetings instead be held in the first-floor conference room, a request Hoefer agreed to.

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

During that first meeting outside Hoefer’s office, and from that point onward, Legato claims Hoefer was “no longer cordial or friendly, but instead noticeably formal and distant” until Legato was ultimately fired on Oct. 1, 2020.

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