Three former employees of Village Candle in Wells have accused the company’s founder and president of displaying “a pervasive pattern of severely offensive and relentless sexual harassment of female employees.”
The allegations leveled against Paul Aldrich, president of Village Candle, are contained in three lawsuits filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland. Besides sexual harassment, the lawsuits charge Aldrich on eight other counts, including assault and battery, touching the plaintiffs in ways they found offensive, retaliation and multiple state and federal labor violations.
The three women – former Village Candle vice president of sales and marketing Cynthia Rowe; her daughter Cassie Laughlin, who was formerly a retail sales manager at the company; and Heidi MacDonald, who worked as a debt collector for the company – are represented by Laura White and William Gallitto of the law firm Bergen & Parkinson in Kennebunk.
Village Candle manufactures scented candles at its facility in Wells. It has more than 50 employees, according to court documents. In 2011, it consolidated its manufacturing and distribution facilities from Topsham and Gardiner into the former R.R. Donnelly catalog printing plant in Wells.
The complaints describe a culture of sexual harassment going back to 2001 when Aldrich allegedly forced a female employee, who is not a plaintiff in the current lawsuits, to have after-hours business dinners with him. The complaints describe one such dinner when Aldrich asked this employee, identified in the complaints only as “MP,” to masturbate in front of him.
The complaints also recount female staff members being subjected to questions from Aldrich having to do with anal sex, being paid for sex and whether they shave their pubic hair.
“Village Candle was aware that Aldrich had a well-established, pervasive pattern of grossly inappropriate sexual harassment of female employees,” White and Gallitto wrote in each of the complaints, which contain some duplicate language as well as individual descriptions of accusations against Aldrich.
Prior to filing the lawsuits, all three women filed charges of discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The state’s human rights commission sent the three women a “notice of (the) right to sue letter” in early March, according to court documents.
Aldrich did not return a message left on his office voice mail on Friday evening. On Monday, a female employee who answered the company’s phone said Aldrich was not in the office that day.
Aldrich’s attorney, Stephen Langsdorf of Preti Flaherty, said Monday that he had not yet read the three federal complaints, but was aware of the allegations in general.
“(Aldrich) absolutely denies that there was any sexual harassment involving any of the claimants in this case,” Langsdorf said. “Once the case is litigated, it will show that the women acted in collusion with each other.”
White said in a phone conversation Monday that Laughlin and MacDonald first reached out to her office after Rowe had been fired in November 2012, Laughlin had quit and MacDonald was still working for the company.
“This was not just a lower-level supervisor who maybe doesn’t know or is behaving badly, this is Paul Aldrich who basically is the company,” White said.
Rowe, who worked as vice president of sales and marketing from December 2009 until she was fired on Nov. 28, 2012, accused Aldrich of “rubbing up against her” many times, threatening to fire her when she rejected his advances and making repeated comments about her body.
She was sent a termination email while she was out on medical leave approved under federal law for several months “due to severe and chronic pain in her neck and back,” according to her 19-page complaint.
Laughlin worked as a retail sales manager for the company for less than a year, from Feb. 13, 2012, until quitting in Dec. 10, 2012. She accuses Aldrich of inappropriately touching her and of unwanted sexual advances.
In November 2012, Laughlin sought medical treatment for pain in her neck, back, shoulders and head. Aldrich, according to Laughlin’s complaint, responded to her request for a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act in a “retaliatory and hostile manner.” Laughlin quit that December after drafting an email that claimed she had experienced “multiple unwelcome verbal, visual, and physical conduct of a harassing nature” from Aldrich.
MacDonald, who worked as a debt collector at the company from January 2011 until being fired in July 2013, accuses Aldrich of inappropriately touching her and of unwanted sexual advances. MacDonald suffered for more than a year from “severe anxiety and panic attacks” as a result of her treatment at Village Candle before requesting leave under the Family Medical Leave Act for a serious health condition related to hypertension, stress, anxiety and depression, according to her complaint. Village Candle fired her soon after her approved leave began, the complaint claims.
All three women are requesting a jury trial and damages.
Aldrich and his attorneys have 21 days from receiving the summons to respond to the complaints. The summons is dated June 6.
Staff Writer Scott Dolan contributed to this report.
Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or at: