Former Alltech employee alleges sexual harassment and retaliation

Woman says Complaints ignored

lblackford@herald-leader.comMay 25, 2011 

The former U.S. controller for Nicholasville-based Alltech is suing the international animal feed company for sexual harassment, alleging she suffered three years of salacious emails, calls and assault by her former boss.

The lawsuit says top officials at the company ignored the complaints of Amanda Jo Wester, who started at Alltech in 2007, about Eric Lanz, Alltech's director of the Americas at the time, and then retaliated against her.

Wester recently resigned from the company, said her lawyer Amy Johnson of Britton Osborne Johnson in Lexington.

The suit was filed in Jessamine Circuit Court on Friday. Alltech officials released a statement defending the work environment at the company on Tuesday, the second day of the annual Alltech Symposium, which is being attended by more than 2,000 people in downtown Lexington.

"We provide a productive and comfortable work environment for all our employees," the statement reads. "Our policies prohibit harassment of any kind. Employees are always encouraged to voice any concerns they have, and we investigate all concerns thoroughly.

"We cannot comment on any pending litigation. Further, we respect the privacy rights of all our current and former employees and do not comment on them."

"The lawsuit speaks for itself," said Johnson, Wester's lawyer.

For the past four years, the lawsuit alleges, "Wester was subjected to repeated and progressively severe acts of sexual harassment by Lanz, including sexual banter, comments about Wester's body, sexually offensive and pornographic emails and text messages, propositions and directives to perform sexual acts."

Wester also alleges that Alltech did not have a formal human resources department during her employment, and that Alltech's anti-harassment policy states Alltech accepts no liability for the harassment of one employee by another.

"The culture and leadership at Alltech created an environment which fostered and condoned acts of sexual harassment," the lawsuit states. "At the 2009 Symposium dinner, Dr. Thomas Pearse Lyons slapped Wester and another female employee on the bottom. On another occasion, Lyons told Wester she needed to attend a meeting because 'we need something pretty to look at,'" according to the suit.

The lawsuit says Wester reported Lanz's sexual harassment to Alltech's general counsel in 2009.

In the spring of 2010, Wester and Lanz went to Iowa on a business trip, according to the suit. Lanz allegedly texted her constantly, came to her hotel room and banged on the door late at night.

When Wester reported the behavior to Lanz's immediate supervisor, Nathan Hohman, Alltech's finance director, Hohman told her she was a "strong woman and recently divorced, and she should feel empowered to just say no and not worry about it," according to the suit.

The harassment continued, according to the court papers, and in January 2011 at a training session, "Lanz locked Wester in a hotel conference room and physically attacked Wester by massaging her shoulders, putting his hands on her hips, and pulling her against him in an attempt to kiss Wester."

Among the offensive emails allegedly sent to Wester by Lanz was one with an attached picture of a woman with her mouth zipped closed and one saying: "I want to look at your ass ...," according to the suit. Another said: "Bed — You — Now," the suit said.

During most of this time, Alltech was heavily involved in its sponsorship of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which was held in the fall of 2010 at the Kentucky Horse Park. In the end, officials have said the company invested roughly $32 million in the two-week event.

The lawsuit says that during the Games, Wester worked long hours on top of her regular duties. Lanz received a $100,000 bonus for helping with the Games, but Wester received nothing, the suit says. After she asked questions, she received $250.

The suit also alleges other women at the company complained of sexual harassment by Lanz.

Wester in turn reported her harassment to an outside auditor, Alltech's payroll and benefits manager, and on April 27, 2011, made a written complaint to Hohman, according to the suit. The suit also says that on April 30, 2011, Alltech announced that effective May 1, all emails older than one year would be destroyed.

Around May 5, 2011, Alltech hired Walther, Roark & Gay to "defend its interest arising from claims related to sexual harassment," the suit says. An attorney questioned Wester for six hours, asking about her relationship with men and her medical history, the suit alleges.

On Tuesday, Alltech spokeswoman Susanna Elliott said that investigation is ongoing.

"I would reiterate that Alltech has a zero tolerance policy on harassment of any kind," she said.

Asked about the lawsuit in an interview, Mark Lyons, who is Pearse Lyons' son and International Project Director for Alltech, said: "We investigate, we take these things seriously, we have a procedure, and part of that is that I cannot comment on pending litigation. Obviously, this type of behavior is not tolerated in the company. We're very much people-focused."

On May 6, 2011, Lanz submitted his resignation to Alltech, according to the lawsuit. On May 10, the suit said, Hohman announced Lanz would continue to work with Alltech on specific projects.

Wester alleges one of her projects was reassigned to Lanz, and other responsibilities were taken away from her, including the U.S. audit. At one point, the suit says, security was posted outside her office door.

"During the course of her employment with Alltech, Wester reported the illegal harassment to members of management and agents of Alltech on multiple occasions," the suit says. "Alltech failed to take prompt and remedial action and instead retaliated against Wester."

The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and unspecified damages, alleging sexual harassment, retaliation, emotional distress, assault, battery and negligent supervision.

Alltech is a global animal feed company that specializes in selling nutrients to brand-name feed companies. It has 2,300 employees, with research plants in Kentucky, Ireland and Thailand; it has manufacturing facilities in 31 countries as well as offices and distributors in 128 countries.

In addition to feed supplements, Alltech has a branded beef product, Alltech Angus, as well as ale, whiskey, and coffee. Its brands include Pearse Lyons Reserve, Kentucky Ale, Kentucky Light and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale.

Herald-Leader staff writer Janet Patton contributed to this report.