Photo: 181129-news-pflawsuit Former Planet Fitness manager alleges rape, 'debaucherous' corporate office environment

Planet Fitness, which has world headquarters on Liberty Lane in Hampton, is being sued by a former manager. 

BRENTWOOD — A former manager at the corporate offices of Planet Fitness is suing the company, claiming the office environment was “debaucherous” with repeated sexual remarks by male employees, drinking competitions like “Fireball Friday,” and that at one point she was allegedly drugged and raped by another employee and his friends during a business trip.

Casey Willard of Dover recently filed suit against Pla-Fit Franchise LLC, also known as Planet Fitness, which has world headquarters in Hampton.

The complaint accuses the company of effectively forcing her to quit, sexual harassment, creating a hostile work environment, discrimination, and retaliation.

Lawyers for Planet Fitness have denied many of the allegations in the suit. Willard was not subjected to discrimination on the basis of gender or a hostile work environment, the company said in its response filed in Rockingham County Superior Court, and any of its actions were taken in “good faith, for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.”

“At Planet Fitness, we have a zero tolerance policy related to harassment of any kind, and are committed to providing a safe environment for all employees. We vehemently dispute the other baseless allegations outlined in the complaint and we intend to vigorously defend ourselves against them,” said a statement released Thursday by McCall Gosselin, vice president of public relations and communications at Planet Fitness.

According to the suit filed through her attorney, John Sherman of Portsmouth, Willard began working as a manager in the corporate offices in 2015. She claims senior members of management regularly directed subordinate employees to drink alcohol during work hours and organized drinking activities as early as 8:30 a.m.

“Fireball Friday” featured managers providing employees with shots as part of a game, she claims. A manager also brought vodka-based gummy worms to the office to be consumed during the work day, the suit said.

“Those employees who either did not participate in this conduct or who participated only slightly were teased, scorned, not invited to future events and told they were not acting like ‘part of the team,’” the suit said.

As a new employee, Willard claims she followed management’s direction and “sometimes found herself drunk at work by 11 a.m.,” the suit said.

Willard also claims that senior management was mostly men who made sexual comments, sexual innuendo, and engaged in “pretend” sexual conduct toward female employees.

She alleges that the human resources department was aware of the drinking and sexual comments, but ignored the problems.

She also claims that the company failed to enforce its anti-fraternization policy, which prohibits employees who supervised subordinate employees directly or indirectly from engaging in a sexual relationship with the subordinate.

“This conduct, lack of discipline, and lack of policy enforcement created an atmosphere of intimidation and domination for younger female employees like Ms. Willard,” the suit says.

Despite the alleged hostile environment, the suit said Willard received promotions and eventually became manager of franchise development and construction.

In 2017, she alleges that while on a business trip to tour Planet Fitness facilities under construction she was drugged and raped by another employee and his friends. Planet Fitness admitted that she did report that she “believed that she had been drugged and assaulted,” the company said in its response.

Sherman, Willard’s lawyer, said Wednesday that the alleged sexual assault was reported to the Portsmouth Police Department. Police would not confirm whether the case was being investigated.

Willard claims she also reported the incident to Planet Fitness and that the worker was fired.

Shortly after the alleged rape, Willard claims a supervisor informed her that he could help her advance to a director’s position. She alleges that he later violated the anti-fraternization policy by taking advantage of her and engaging in a sexual relationship. While on business trips, she claims he followed her to her room, accessed the mini bar and plied her with alcohol.

In its statement, Planet Fitness maintains it addressed some of the issues raised in the lawsuit.

“We swiftly and thoroughly investigated all concerns Ms. Willard brought to our attention during her employment with the company and took immediate action, which resulted in the termination of an employee for violation of company policies. We later independently learned of a consensual relationship between Ms. Willard and a supervisor, which Ms. Willard did not bring to our attention. This resulted in the termination of the supervisor for a consensual relationship in violation of the company’s non-fraternization policy,” the company said.

Near the end of her employment, Willard claims the company, which she was told was planning to fire her, offered to pay her six months salary if she signed a settlement agreement. She declined the offer, the suit said.

“Sometimes she was so anxious and overwhelmed with how she was being treated and confused about her employment status that she sat at her desk crying and shaking,” the suit said.

The company said she “voluntarily” left in April.

Among other things, Willard alleges Planet Fitness threatened to fire her and “otherwise discriminated against her because she is a victim of sexual assault.”

Willard is seeking various damages, lost wages and attorney’s fees.

rockinghamnews@unionleader.com