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Former employees allege racism, sexism and discrimination from CEO of Denver-based fertilizer company

Former employees allege racism, sexism and discrimination from CEO of Denver-based fertilizer company
Posted at 6:27 AM, Sep 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-30 08:27:14-04

DENVER — Seven former employees of a Colorado-based fertilizer company, Waste Farmers, thought they were joining a workplace focused on sustainability. Instead, they allege, it was filled with harassment.

In a lawsuit filed over the summer in Denver District Court, seven former employees accuse the former CEO and manager of Waste Farmers, John-Paul Maxfield of "unlawful harassment based on sex, race, age, sexual-orientation, and religion." The suit also accuses Waste Farmers' shareholders of failing to take corrective actions.

According to one counterclaim filed by Waste Farmers, Maxfield stepped down from his role during the summer of 2021, and a new Chief Operating Officer assumed his duties.

A website for Waste Farmers states the company's mission is to, "Reduce nutrient costs, boost and protect your yields while supporting revenue growth with our consistently crafted blends, nutrients and integrated growing systems."

According to a published report from 2012, the company was conceptualized in 2008, and sometime after began producing and selling, "organic soil amendments, fertilizers and soil inoculants, including potting soil, worm castings, biochar and compost tea."

Sean Brown moved from Chicago to Denver to work for Waste Farmers with interest in the company's purported initiatives.

"That's what actually partially drew me to Waste Farmers, was I wanted to commit myself to the sustainability realm, anything in the regenerative realm," he said.

Brown said the realities he hoped for during his tenure at the company turned out to be the exact opposite.

"It's really heartbreaking when that façade just comes down," he said.

The suit states, "Amongst other odious and unlawful misconduct, Defendant Maxfield questioned Plaintiffs about their sex lives, spewed homophobic and sexist comments, joked that Black individuals should be enslaved, ridiculed people with disabilities, circulated sexually graphic memes, and threatened employees with physical violence."

"[The former CEO] created one of those atmospheres that if... [for example] let's say you were gay and you wanted to share more about your personal life, whatever it may be, he made it such an uncomfortable and volatile environment. We could have folks in the production staff that might have, you know, been gay or something like that, and we could have never known because he laid into that so hard," Brown said.

"There are a lot of people who were victims of abuse and harassment and bullying at the company," Aaron Rosenthal added.

Rosenthal first worked as a consultant for Waste Farmers and later as a "core leadership" team member.

The law firm representing the former employees, Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC, alleges when plaintiffs complained and "took part in an investigation," they were retaliated against by being placed on indefinite administrative leave. The suit also says the company's shareholders failed to rectify the situation.

In addition to the alleged harassment, the plaintiffs' attorneys state the company is used as a shell for Maxfield to grow marijuana plants for "personal use."

The former employees all worked in administrative or managerial roles until May of last year, according to the lawsuit.

Additionally, the court document states each plaintiff who filed discrimination charges with the Colorado Civil Rights Division in March of 2021, was subsequently granted a right to sue by CCRD.

In response to a countersuit filed by Waste Farmers, the lawsuit states the former employees filed additional discrimination charges with the CCRD and subsequently received additional rights to sue.

The 24-page legal document states Maxfield would lash out in verbal tirades, use obscenities and make criticisms based on the protected classes of sex/gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age and disability.

The suit shares the following allegations in part:

  • "Defendant Maxfield routinely 'joked' about AIDS and gay men"
  • "Defendant Maxfield referred to believing in Jesus Christ as 'b------t.'"
  • "Defendant Maxfield referred to the global COVID-19 pandemic as 'COVAIDS' implying that gay men who are HIV positive started and spread the current pandemic."
  • "Defendant Maxfield asked [plaintiff] if her and her ex-spouse’s sex-drives 'matched up.'"
  • "Defendant Maxfield made inappropriate sexual comments about [plaintff's] ex-wife, including asking Mr. Oldfield, 'when is the last time you and your ex-wife were [sexually] intimate?” and asking Mr. Oldfield if he and his current partner had 'banged yet?'"

Attorneys write that Maxfield also shared discriminatory written messages and a pornographic picture over messaging apps. An alleged conversation regarding supply chains is described as the following:

"Oldfield: I prefer Supply web. Chain doesn’t vibe with my essence
Maxfield: I like chains because I am pro slavery and trump. I just want to make America great again.
Oldfield: I just want to be a decent human being . . ."

The suit claims Maxfield routinely forced and encouraged employees to engage in illegal conduct through the growth and sale of, "illegal hemp/marijuana in a Waste Farmers' facility" and through the purchase of psilocybin mushroom spores.

The company allegedly had no mechanisms for reporting or halting the harassment, leaving Rosenthal to singularly field concerns from those facing the alleged abuse.

The suit states the harassment culminated into a large band of demoralized employees who chose to resign or call for Maxfield's resignation. Allegedly, when Maxfield was confronted with the concerns, he agreed to resign before reversing course.

"Defendant Maxfield argued that the employees were not complaining because of discrimination or abuse and attempted to minimize his actions as merely those of an 'a-----e,'" the suit reads.

Upon advocating on behalf of the disillusioned employees, Rosenthal had his salary reduced by nearly $20,000 and was subjected to repeated cease-and-desist letters from Waste Farmer's legal team, the court document states.

Nonetheless, Rosenthal later, "created a seventeen page typed report detailing the illegal and abusive actions, harassment, discrimination, and hostile environment outlined above (“Whistleblower Report”) and shared it with two investors," the case states.

"Yes, I felt a moral obligation, but I also felt somewhat of a legal responsibility to report when somebody says, 'I'm being abused, I'm being harassed.' That must be reported," Rosenthal said.

Haley Popovic, another former employee bringing forth allegations in the suit, said she reached an "ultimatum" about her future within the company after witnessing the former CEO unleash a verbal tirade against a fellow colleague.

"He's like spitting on Petee and just calling him a little b——h, saying, "'hy doesn't he just f———g quit if he hates being here,' and he kept going on and on for probably like a good 15 minutes. That was one of the most horrible things like that made me want to walk out," she said.

Ryan 'Petee' Oldfield is also named in the litigation against Waste Farmers.

"There were a lot of conversations that ended in me getting yelled at where I was told how, how stupid I was and how I needed to like do things differently," Oldfield said.

Pages 13 through 15 of the lawsuit accuse Waste Farmers' investors of siding with Maxfield after receiving a whistleblower report crafted by Rosenthal. The accusations detail passivity and intimidations made by various shareholders in an attempt to silence and, in some cases, intimidate employees from speaking out.

Rosenthal said he and another employee were both was placed on indefinite administrate leave on March 19, 2021 — the same day Maxfield's authority over the company was to be reduced.

"They decided that they not only would not take action against John-Paul, but rather they would make disparaging comments about us and threaten us with legal action and criminal investigation," Rosenthal said.

Some shareholders also allegedly ignored the findings following a private investigation that, "Despite the bias and deficiencies in the investigation and report, the Employment Matters investigation nevertheless concluded that Defendant Maxfield’s conduct was so egregious as to violate the law in some respects and necessitated corrective action to stop and prevent his unlawful conduct."

The suit alleges "egregious and retaliatory threats" were made against the plaintiffs seeking legal recourse in situation.

"In an email dated June 25 of last year, an attorney for Waste Farmers wrote, 'we are evaluating whether to report your clients' conduct to the appropriate law enforcement authorities,'" Halpern said. "And later in that same email, the attorney wrote, 'I urge you to consider the impact that discovery and public litigation will have on your clients, their families and their future prospects for gainful employment.'"

Waste Farmers has filed a total of five countersuits, denying all allegations brought forth by the former employees.

In the latest counterclaim filed by Waste Farmers' legal counsel in March of this year, Maxfield reportedly resigned from his role as manager and delegated his authority to a Chief Operating Officer in May of last year.

"The new COO, Kristen McCormick, started at Waste Farmers on Monday, May 17, 2021. Defendant Maxfield subsequently announced to Waste Farmers that he had formally delegated all his authority as Manager to the COO and would be resigning effective July 31, 2021," the countersuit states.

While the lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, Halpern said the litigation is primarily about accountability for those in power.

"It doesn't matter in society today at any company who the harasser is, if the harasser is the CEO, a low-level supervisor or even an employee, the company has to take action has to take care of its employees," Halpern said.

The CCRD is currently reviewing several complaints filed against Waste Farmers' shareholders.

Attorneys for Waste Farmers have filed a motion for the lawsuit to be dismissed.