A complaint was filed in the federal court in January against Sonny Perdue, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Forest Service, alleging gender discrimination and harassment and retaliation against a woman who worked for the Green Mountain Forest Service and claims a colleague harassed her.

Sarah Willis, through her attorney, James Levins, of the Rutland law firm Tepper, Dardeck and Levins, accused Ethan Ready, public affairs officer for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests, of harassing her while she worked for the forest service in Vermont from 2013 through 2018.

Willis, who lives in Rutland, accused Ready of harassing actions like talking with her about sex, staring at her body, and touching her inappropriately.

The filing also complains that Willis was forced to work with Ready as her supervisor even after she complained about him, leading to her leaving the job.

The complaint asks for compensatory damages for Willis’ “emotional pain and suffering, loss of income and attorneys’ fees, as well as penalties and damages, but does not suggest a specific amount.

Perdue and the USDA are being defended by the office of the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, Christina Nolan, with filings submitted by Benjamin Weathers-Lowin, but no response has been submitted yet. Weathers-Lowin has instead asked for a delay which he attributed to the response to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes.

The U.S. Attorney’s office had asked for an extension in March. The request was granted and the response was due on April 27.

Another request was filed by Weathers-Lowin on Tuesday.

“On March 16, 2020, defendant began to face staffing and work disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shelter-in-place orders, school and daycare closures, etc. Despite defendant’s diligence, such disruptions have significantly hampered defendant’s ability to respond to plaintiff’s amended complaint, and such disruptions remain ongoing,” he wrote.

In a footnote, Weathers-Lowin elaborated. He said attorneys in the civil division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office have been required to telework since March 16.

“While much of the civil division’s work can be accomplished while working remotely, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish certain tasks remotely,” Weathers-Lowin wrote.

The U.S Attorney’s Office’s response is due by May 27.

The complaint against the USDA, which explains that Perdue was named because “all the acts and failures to act were performed by or attributable to the Department of Agriculture, said Willis.

According to the complaint, Willis, because of the alleged ongoing issues, requested her supervisor, John Sinclair, conduct meetings with an outside mediator to discuss Ready’s management style.

“At one of these meetings, Sarah Willis heard Ready, Sinclair and (another Green Mountain National Forest employee) laughing about Ready being called an ‘extrovert/pervert.’ Watching that interaction caused Sarah Willis to lose confidence that her reporting sexual harassment would be taken seriously,” the complaint stated.

The complaint describes a report by the USDA of Ready that found there had been other young women who complained about Ready, said he had asked them for dates, sent them personal electronic messages with pictures of him at his home, among other activities. However, that report found “insufficient evidence,” the complaint said.

Willis took time off from her job with the Green Mountain National Forest because of the stress of the alleged harassment and confrontations with other staff members that she attributed to her complaints against Ready.

When she returned, she was required to work under Ready and was moved to a “cramped, isolated office that had been used for storage.”

Willis said after she was unable to be assigned to a different supervisor, and allegedly lost pay because of the relationship she had with Ready, she left her job.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case on Wednesday. A call to Levins was not returned.

When reached by phone on Wednesday, Ready said he was participating remotely in a meeting but would call back. As of deadline, Ready had not returned a call to the Herald.

patrick.mcardle @rutlandherald.com

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