Former Tabard Inn managers’ lawsuits claim sexual harassment, wrongful termination


Amid a family feud that has shaken up the iconic Tabard Inn, four former employees have filed lawsuits alleging unfair employment practices there. (Maddie Meyer/THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 9, 2013

A former manager at the Tabard Inn has sued the historic hotel, claiming that embattled co-owner Fritzi Cohen, among others, fostered a hostile workplace and retaliated against her when she registered a sexual harassment complaint. In two separate lawsuits, three other former managers claim they were wrongfully fired in retaliation for questioning Cohen’s oversight of the inn.

Cohen, president and chief executive of the Tabard Corp., declined to comment on the three civil actions filed last month in D.C. Superior Court. But newly installed Tabard board member Keith Stavrum said the complaints emanate from “disgruntled” former employees. Stavrum is also Cohen’s companion in Washington state, where the couple live and operate the Moby Dick Hotel in Nahcotta.

“They were not doing their jobs, and now there are people [at the Tabard] that have replaced them that have stepped up to do the jobs,” Stavrum said. “All these lawsuits will go nowhere.”

One complaint was filed by Erin Claxton, the Tabard’s former wedding director and special-events manager, who resigned on May 26. In her suit, Claxton claims that on April 5, recently hired hotel manager Lars Rusins “made physical contact with [her] body from behind while she was leaning over to glance at a list of information relevant to the matter at hand.”

Later that same day, according to the suit, Rusins allegedly made a comment about Claxton in front of two other Tabard employees: “And we thought they hired her just because she’s cute.”

That evening, Claxton phoned Cohen, who allegedly told the wedding director to “take it as a compliment,” the suit notes. The complaint also alleges that Stavrum picked up the phone and “began making additional inappropriate comments” and noises. “He asked if Rusins’s comments were similar to his inappropriate noises,” the suit states.

After Claxton’s attempt to report the incident, Cohen stopped communicating directly with her about parties and failed to deal with the harassment charge, the suit alleges. The behavior of Cohen, Stavrum and Rusins, the complaint adds, created a hostile workplace and indicated to Claxton that she was “no longer welcome at the Tabard Inn,” effectively leading to her resignation after a decade of employment there. The suit also alleges that Cohen and Stavrum’s reaction to Claxton’s sexual harassment complaint violated her rights under the Human Rights Act to protest such acts in the workplace.

Claxton’s attorney, Denise Clark, declined to discuss the lawsuit and advised her client to do the same. Clark is the attorney who successfully sued chef Roberto Donna in 2010 in U.S. District Court for labor and wage violations tied to two of his former restaurants.

Stavrum said Cohen has hired an expert in sexual harassment to train the staff about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, and he denied Claxton’s allegations.

“That’s a lie. Actually, Fritzi heard my conversation with her on the phone,” Stavrum said in response to the charge that he had made inappropriate comments to Claxton. “Basically, I tried to find out if he touched her in way at all, and she said no. Later, she claimed he did.”

Jared Wilayto, the former hotel manager who was fired on May 24, also filed a lawsuit tied to Claxton’s sexual harassment charge. In his complaint, Wilayto alleges that he heard Rusins “make more than one inappropriate statement to females working at the hotel, including Erin Claxton,” according to his suit. The former hotel manager claims Cohen and Stavrum trumped up charges against him in retaliation for his opposition to the alleged sexual harassment at the Tabard.

In response, Stavrum said that Wilayto was fired for insubordination because he failed to prevent the special-events staff, including Claxton, from charging clients extra fees and splitting that money among themselves. “When he gets a directive from the president,” Stavrum said, “he’s supposed to carry it out, and he was unable to do so.”

Wilayto, who had worked at the Tabard, for more than seven years, also is represented by Clark and was not available for comment.

The third lawsuit was filed by Clare Wilson, the former housekeeping manager, and Irene Mayer, the former designer and project manager at the Tabard. Wilson was fired on May 28, and Mayer was fired on May 30. Both women claim that they were terminated without cause and have not received all their their back vacation pay. The plaintiffs allege they were fired for, among other things, disagreeing with Fritzi Cohen’s decision to remove her son, Jeremiah Cohen, as general manager after 18 years on the job.

Wilson and Mayer also are represented by Clark and were not available for comment.

Stavrum denied their claims and said both Wilson and Mayer were “paid right away. They’ve all been paid. It’s all documented.”

All four former managers apparently are active in the Save the Tabard campaign, which is trying to buy out Cohen’s 35 percent ownership in the Tabard Corp. If successful, the employees could potentially take a controlling interest in the company, because they already own 30 percent of the shares through an employee stock ownership plan. It was not clear whether the lawsuits would fit into the campaign’s stated goal of limiting the Tabard Corp.’s liabilities and opening up communications with Cohen.

In a statement, inn employee Carolyn E. DeWitt, organizer of Save the Tabard, called the lawsuits “an absolute last resort.”

“We have [pursued] and continue to pursue every option to save the Tabard that people know and love: a place dedicated to its staff, where employees are treated like human beings, not disposable objects,” DeWitt said.

In the meantime, the Tabard Inn has hired a general manager to replace Jeremiah Cohen. Ryan Thackaberry, who has worked with P.F. Chang’s and Kimpton Hotels, started July 1. Thackaberry said he was consulting on a restaurant opening in New Jersey when he was contacted by Jack Veale, whom Fritzi Cohen had hired as a consultant for the Tabard. Thackaberry said he was fully briefed on the situation at the Tabard and “understood the uphill challenge.”

“He was vetted a great deal,” Fritzi Cohen said about Thackaberry. “I’m looking forward to how he can help with the Tabard.”

Thackaberry said he was still coming to terms with his new job and the situation he inherited. He said his first order of business was to get systems in place, from payroll to housekeeping.

“What I tell my employees is, ‘I’m just looking forward to the future of the hotel. I have nothing to do with the past. I care about the traditions. . . . I care where this place came from. I appreciate the employees that have worked here for so many years,” he said.

“I now want to get everybody who’s disgruntled back to smiles on their faces. I want to make sure they get the support they need, because they haven’t had any support for the past few months. Everyone’s been kind of thrown into different positions, having to just train themselves. Now I’m taking my employees and giving them the training they need and the support they need,” he said.

Even though he is interviewing candidates for the bookkeeping position, Thackaberry said he is “using the staff I was given when I arrived. I want to. I want to give everybody a fair shot. I’m definitely not going to come in here and get rid of everybody. We’ve already had enough of that.”

There has been one new hire at the Tabard: Thackaberry’s girlfriend, Ashlee Anderson, who is now officially the human resources director at the hotel and restaurant. The establishment previously did not have one.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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