A former executive of a startup created by a group of SHoP Architects employees claims she was fired after complaining about repeated sexual harassment from one of the company’s founders and a pay disparity between herself and a male colleague.
Heidi Werner recently filed a lawsuit against SHoP, Envelope City — a company launched by SHoP employees that provides 3D maps of development and zoning scenarios — as well as Envelope’s co-founder Todd Sigaty and CEO Cindy McLaughlin. Werner alleges that Sigaty subjected her to “reckless sexual innuendo,” which escalated to “persistent, unwanted bodily contact and kissing.”
The lawsuit describes Werner’s growing discomfort interacting with Sigaty, who works for both SHoP and Envelope, since he interviewed her for a consultancy job at Envelope in December 2015. She alleges that Sigaty hugged her at the end of the interview, which made her uncomfortable, but she assumed he was “simply being friendly.” But once she started working for the company, he proceeded to greet her with “full-body” embraces and a kiss on the cheek, the lawsuit states. With each embrace, Sigaty gradually drew closer to Werner’s mouth until eventually he kissed her directly on the mouth with each greeting, according to the lawsuit. She alleges that SHoP and Envelope executives, whose offices were located in the same building, saw these interactions take place, leaving her feeling “belittled.”
“That kind contact is not appropriate for the workplace, and it spreads rumors,” Werner told The Real Deal in an interview. “It’s absolutely humiliating.”
Representatives for SHoP declined to comment. An attorney for Envelope, McLaughlin and Sigaty declined to comment. In responses to the complaint filed in New York federal court, all the defendants denied the allegations.
“The suit is full of untruths. She is a challenging former employee who was angry at her very legitimate termination,” McLaughlin told TRD. “I wish her well. Even in spite of this, I wish her well.”
The complaint notes that Werner tried to avoid Sigaty as much as possible.
“Seemingly to punish her for her resistance to him, Sigaty increased the intensity of his physical advances, now greeting the plaintiff with longer embraces and more fervent kisses on the cheek,” the lawsuit states. “Werner’s departure would occasion from Sigaty a deep bow, a kiss on her hand, and excessive compliments.”
According to the lawsuit, these interactions coincided with assurances from Sigaty that she would soon “receive a title and a compensation package… commensurate with her value.” At the time, Werner’s salary was a point of contention, as she had discussed what she saw as an unfair disparity in pay rates at the company, the complaint states.
Werner started working for Envelope as a consultant and was promoted to chief product officer in December 2017, according to the lawsuit. A male colleague, who served as the company’s chief technical officer, was hired after Werner and had similar responsibilities, the complaint states. He allegedly earned more than double Werner’s $120,000 salary and 1 percent equity in the company. In response to her concerns, Sigaty allegedly blamed “market forces” as the reason that men were paid more than women. McLaughlin allegedly deferred the question of salary differences to the company’s board.
After Werner sent an email to the company’s board, she was fired on January 16, 2018, according to the lawsuit. Werner alleges that she wasn’t given a reason for her termination, though her bosses called her email “inappropriate.” She’s seeking damages of at least $1 million.