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Woman sues Kate Spade company for harassment, ageism while working at Hagerstown store

Don Aines
Herald Mail Media

A Pennsylvania woman has filed suit in federal court claiming that a pattern of harassment targeting her disabilities and age while employed at the Kate Spade store in the Premium Outlets led her to attempt suicide.

Stein & Vargas, a Washington, D.C., civil rights firm, filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore on behalf of Michelle Thiele, described as a “highly regarded manager” at the Hagerstown retail store. The suit also lists Tapestry Inc., Kate Spade’s parent company, as a defendant.

The alleged mistreatment included “firing off confetti cannons at close range” at Thiele and orchestrating “jump scares” by employees that aggravated her post-traumatic stress disorder. These actions were done at the direction of management, the suit claims.

A phone message to the Kate Spade offices in New York had not been returned as of 4 p.m. Friday.

The suit states Thiele, born in 1964, has post-traumatic stress disorder and that “sudden loud noises cause an emotional and visceral reaction” by her.

The lawsuit states she also has anxiety and depression.

Thiele was hired as an assistant manager for the store in 2015 and promoted to store manager the same year, according to the suit. Thiele’s management led to the store having increased sales and the highest employee retention among 72 Kate Spade stores.

In October 2016 a new district manager was hired, making her Thiele’s supervisor, the suit states. At the time, Thiele was one of two full-time employees over the age of 40.

The new district manager targeted Thiele and the other employee, who later resigned, with “abusive and differential treatment,” while younger employees were treated more favorably, the lawsuit alleges.

In a March 27, 2017, incident, the manager is alleged to have called Thiele from the parking lot, while claiming to be in Leesburg, Va., the lawsuit states. The manager then had an employee let her in so she could hide and then jump-scare Thiele.

The manager “howled with laughter when she succeeded in frightening and causing a visible reaction in Ms. Thiele,” the document states.

Thiele met with the manager on April 11, 2017, to request in writing that management order an end to the confetti cannon-firing, or give her advance notice so she could remove herself from the area. Instead, the suit claims the manager said she was going to contact human resources about Thiele’s performance.

A week later, the manager fired a confetti cannon while seated next to Thiele at a meeting, according to the suit.

Thiele contacted an employee helpline, but her workplace remained unsafe, the document said.

In July 2017, Thiele attempted suicide “to escape the pain of her workplace” and was hospitalized, the suit states. In March 2018, Thiele was placed on long-term disability as a “result of her employment with Kate Spade,” the document said.

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The suit notes Kate Spade, the founder of the store chain, committed suicide in 2018.

Later that month, the suit states, the director of human resources informed Thiele by letter that she had to have her physician fill out a questionnaire and share information about her medical treatment, or lose her position, according to the suit.

The suit said Thiele complied. However, in July 2018, she was informed that an investigation into the manager’s conduct was closed and that Thiele was terminated effective Aug. 1, 2018.

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The suit specifically claims the Kate Spade company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act through workplace harassment, failure to make reasonable accommodations and her termination, as well as workplace retaliation.

Thiele’s lawsuit states her former employer also violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act on similar grounds. A final count alleges intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress.

Thiele demands a jury trial and wants compensatory and punitive damages from the Kate Spade company, as well as costs and attorney’s fees, the suit states.

Don Aines covers Washington County, Md. Circuit and District Courts for Gannett.