BRUNSWICK COUNTY – After months of alleged harassment, a Brunswick County woman learned that state and federal law don’t protect her because the harassment took place at a non-profit.
Dr. Kristen Colleran joined the Brunswick Environmental Action Team in the summer of 2017 as a volunteer and became a board member. Over the course of several months, she claims she experienced sexual harassment that ultimately forced her to resign. When she sought legal representation, she was told she had no case, despite having detailed documentation of her harassment.
“People don’t realize this, but under Title VII (federal anti-discrimination) law, you aren’t protected if you work for (a) company with less than 15 employees – or if you work for a non-profit as a volunteer. State law doesn’t protect you either, it’s a very frustrating loophole,” Colleran said.
According to Joseph J. Olivares, spokesman for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “volunteers are not covered under the laws we enforce. As in many situations, there could be a gray area in this situation. For example, a volunteer fireman who gets life insurance (but no pay or other monetary remuneration) might be an ‘employee.’ The determination would be case-by-case.”
Olivares pointed out that “some new state and local laws in the aftermath of #MeToo are starting to cover unpaid interns. State and local laws often cover employers with fewer than 15 employees.”
But in Colleran’s case, no luck. She contacted five different law firms, but was told North Carolina state law – like federal law – only covers paid employees, and only for companies with 15 or more employees. Colleran has reached out to the National Women’s Legal Center and the ACLU, but neither organization was able to take her case.
Colleran said that despite leaving her non-profit she wants to protect it from “an ongoing toxic situation.” Moreover, Colleran said she hopes her story can shine some light – and draw the attention of local lawmakers – to the limits of Title VII.
“I feel that any organization is only as good as its individual members. A toxic person, or persons, can disrupt the work or ruin the effectiveness of an organization, by driving people away, or by fostering poor morale; whether it’s a workplace or a non-profit. I also want to illuminate this issue to bring about protections so that others do not have to go through what I have experienced,” Colleran said.
In the eyes of federal law, a non-profit doesn’t count as an employer. But Colleran’s story is probably familiar to many who have seen harassment in more traditional workplaces.
Colleran joined the Brunswick Environment Action Team (BEAT) because, like many Cape Fear residents, she had become increasingly concerned about environmental issues including offshore drilling and GenX. A veterinarian by training, Colleran said she’d always been concerned about environmental issues, and felt happy to be among people with similar concerns.
Colleran became one of BEAT’s early board members and developed a working relationship with BEAT President Neil Gilbert.
Over the next two months, Gilbert began messaging Colleran using Slack – a messaging program used by many companies and organizations. Colleran said that, going back over the records of the Slack conversations, Gilbert’s messages were initially friendly, but grew increasingly personal.
“At first the messages were – they were not the kind of thing you would say one way or another. You could interpret them as innocent or as something more,” Colleran said.
At the end of September, the tone of Gilbert’s messages became more intimate. After Colleran repeatedly stated that the two should remain platonic friends, Gilbert wrote, “you will be my Warrior Woman and I will be your Ocean Warrior” and quoted “Grey’s Anatomy,” saying “you are my person.”
Gilbert’s comments struck Collaren as inappropriate. The following day, she messaged Gilbert back, telling him to keep their conversations professional.
“I said we had common goals, and that I enjoyed working with him professionally, but that it sounded like he was looking for something deeper and I didn’t think that was appropriate or fair to his wife,” Colleran said.
Colleran worried that Gilbert might take offense to her response and started documenting the Slack messages from Gilbert, back to mid-September.
Ten days later, Gilbert again sent Colleran personal messages, this time, she said, detailing marital issues. Colleran again tried to distance herself and keep things professional. This time she told Gilbert that she would resign if things did not remain professional. However, Gilbert continued to share personal details, intermixed with BEAT business.
Then, in mid-November, Colleran said Gilbert changed his attitude.
From flirtation to harassment
One night, Colleran said that Gilbert, who was out of town, asked her to call him.
“He had asked me to call him while he was away because he wanted to ‘hear my voice.’ When I did not return his call, he left another message, saying he wished to speak with me and to discuss BEAT business. When I did not return his call, and instead messaged him telling him I was unable to speak, he responded with anger. I replied that we were friendly through the Board, but that he had continually crossed boundaries, and that it had to stop. He replied with hostility, claiming that his wife was 10 times the Warrior Woman I was and accusing me of chasing married men,” Colleran said.
Colleran emailed Gilbert, telling him she felt harassed and asked him to stop. From this point, Colleran claims Gilbert took a variety of measures to harass her: publicly criticizing her efforts on social media, and claiming she had a history of breaking up both organizations and marriages, as well as claiming that she had called Gilbert’s wife to belittle her — Colleran denies these were even remotely true.
According to Dale Todd, a former BEAT board member, the board held an emergency meeting to deal with the ongoing issues between Gilbert and Colleran. Todd said that, initially, based on the testimony of at least one BEAT member, the board asked Gilbert to step down. However, after that testimony was recanted, BEAT was at a loss.
A week later, Todd said he resigned from the board in frustration, although he remained a member. Todd pointed out that, to the best of his knowledge, there were no laws covering sexual harassment in non-profits, and BEAT didn’t yet have permanent bylaws to deal with mediating that kind of issue.
“I didn’t see it getting any better,” Todd said. “The board did the best they could, I think. It was a group of well-meaning people trying to come to a conclusion and we were unable to… when it comes to sexual harassment in a (volunteer) non-profit, it’s kind of the wild west.”
Several other board members, including Colleran, resigned during this time.
Two weeks after Gilbert was nearly removed, he seemed to have stepped down. Posting on Facebook that “a weight has been lifted,” Gilbert said “(a)lthough my term as President expires in a month, I have been granted a ‘leave of absence.”
However, Gilbert continued to act on behalf of BEAT, posting a call for BEAT board members as recently Friday, April 6. Peter Key, spokesman for BEAT, identified himself as the interim chairman and secretary of the BEAT board, but did not respond to questions about whether or BEAT had a president.
However, Gilbert himself seemed to speak on behalf of BEAT, both in response to questions and in Brunswick County Court.
The issue goes to court
Port City Daily first reached out to Gilbert on March 6. Gilbert asked for time to consult his attorney before he or the BEAT board could comment – although he was not asked to speak on behalf of the board.
The following day, on March 7, Gilbert made a sworn statement to a magistrate, asking for a criminal cyberstalking summons to be delivered to Colleran.
On the same day, Gilbert also filed a civil injunction against Colleran, a no-contact order for stalking or nonconsensual sexual contact. Such an injunction required Gilbert to show he felt he was in danger and, in the filing, Gilbert wrote that Colleran was dangerous, and complained about her “contacting the local media” to attack him and BEAT.
“Since November, 2017, Kristen Colleran has been publicly bad mouthing me to her friends and to strangers. Her public comments have caused her friends to come to me giving me warnings saying she is not mentally stable and she is ‘dangerous.’ Along with the public attacks against me, Kristen is constantly making inflammatory posts about me on her Facebook page. She has had her friends write ‘letters to the editor’ to the Brunswick Beacon about me. She recently has been contacting the local media to slur my name and the Brunswick Environmental Action Team,” Gilbert wrote.
A week later, on March 14, Brunswick County Judge Pauline Hankins dismissed Gilbert’s suit. In doing so, the judge assigned the majority of court and legal fees to Gilbert.
The cyberstalking charges are still pending in Brunswick County District Court.
Gilbert continued to decline to answer questions after the civil case was dismissed, saying he could not meet with his lawyer – Ryan Smithwick – until the end of March.
Gilbert later sent the following comment, “Due to ongoing criminal litigation against Ms. Colleran, I have been advised to refer all questions to our attorney, Mr. Ryan Smithwick.”
Smithwick initially did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls. After one week, Smithwick responded, declining to answer all questions, including whether or not Gilbert was affiliated with BEAT.
Neither Smithwick or Gilbert have refuted any of Colleran’s claims.
Editor’s note: Criminal charges against Colleran have since been dismissed.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.