The two women say their male boss berated and screamed at them while sparing the only other man in the office from such harsh treatment.
The boss says he spoke sternly but never yelled and that he demanded the same standard of competence from all his workers.
They say they feared being alone with him.
He says they never complained about anything amounting to a hostile workplace.
They say his behavior crossed the line into gender discrimination and harassment.
He says they are the sexists.
They want to file a claim of workplace discrimination.
The law says they can’t. The business is too small.
The two women are Vanessa Walsh and Karen Christopherson. Their boss: former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.
Walsh, 49, and Christopherson, 35, testified at the Utah Legislature earlier this year about what they say they experienced at the office — without mentioning Anderson by name — and the need to extend discrimination protections to employees at small workplaces.
Anderson, 66, supports those extensions, too, but says Walsh and Christopherson are examples of another problem for small businesses: the power of false complaints.
Inside the law office
Christopherson met Anderson while working as a server in a Big Cottonwood Canyon restaurant in the late summer or early fall of 2017.
Anderson, who was out with friends, ordered salmon and started talking to Christopherson, she recalled. Before leaving, he asked if she was interested in working for him.
“She seemed very confident,” Anderson said. “She had an impressive presence. She also said she had a degree in business management.”
Christopherson knew about the former mayor’s progressive reputation and “very much revered him.”
“He represented justice to me,” she said, “and I loved that he was outspoken.”
Christopherson had no experience working at a law firm and says Anderson knew that. Still, she started as his office manager Oct. 11, 2017.
She handled bills and some management issues while helping to edit and format legal briefs. She had to look up legal terms such as “deposition” and “subpoena.”
By contrast, Walsh had a career in finance but decided to switch and become a lawyer. She graduated from the University of Utah’s law school in 2016 and passed the bar exam later that year.
Walsh saw an ad Anderson posted. She had done pro bono work while in law school and thought Anderson’s practice would be a good fit. She started Sept. 1, 2017, days after Anderson won a big case for Brewvies Cinema Pub.
That legal tussle was about whether a Utah statute banning full-frontal nudity, simulated sex and other depictions of nudity and sex in places that serve alcohol was applied too broadly to a theater like Brewvies when the state fined it for showing the raunchy superhero movie “Deadpool.”
On Walsh’s second day, Anderson and his staff were in the midst of decorating a new office and wanted to give some artwork to Brewvies’ owner.
Anderson was hunting for something that would have been impermissible to hang in Brewvies under the statute that was declared unconstitutional. Decorator Lyndsie Orgill brought posters to Anderson’s office.
Anderson says everyone joined in choosing a poster depicting a rocket shaped like a penis.
Walsh acknowledges the shopping was fun but says she felt pressured into taking a photo beside the artwork.
“I didn’t want the picture out there,” Walsh said, “but it was my second day, and I didn’t want to offend my new boss.”
Anderson the took photo of Walsh, Orgill and law clerk Walter Mason posing with the poster. All say Walsh never expressed any discomfort over the artwork or the photo. She is smiling in the picture.
“Vanessa definitely got a kick out of it,” Orgill said earlier this month.
Christopherson started in October 2017. She acknowledges learning how to manage a law office proved challenging for her but says Anderson would blow mistakes out of proportion, especially if the errors came from a woman.
She says if Mason, the firm’s lone male staffer at the time, had a typo in the draft of a legal brief, Anderson didn’t react.
“But if [the mistakes] were Vanessa’s, it was a big deal,” Christopherson said. “There would be eye rolling and ‘I can’t believe she did that.’”
Walsh and Christopherson maintain Mason also made some of the clerical errors they did.
“He screamed and yelled at me but was patient with Walter,” Christopherson said.
“I never heard him raise his voice to Walter at all — ever,” Walsh said.
The two women say Anderson also spoke ill of former female staffers. He acknowledges referring to one ex-employee as “Blue Hair” for the dyed hair she wore when she worked for him and struggled to remember her name. He says he may have described a female former employee as “s----y,” though he maintains he treats his male and female employees the same and accuses Walsh of using crude language in the office.
Walsh and Christopherson say Anderson wouldn’t make such comments about his former male workers; he would remark only that things didn’t work out.
“It was a hostile environment,” Walsh said, “both for us being there and in hearing about the other women who had been there and had left.”
Anderson maintains that “if there are any sexists here, it’s these two, who are using their sex to complain about things that have been done or said to people of both sexes in this office.”
Christopherson is also upset that she was denied a $153-a-week raise even though she was handling what she says was more work than one person ought to do.
Mason confirmed he received a $25,000 bonus after Anderson’s practice had what the clerk called a productive and profitable year.
A turning point came Jan. 9. Anderson was hosting a fundraiser for Democratic congressional candidate Shireen Ghorbani. He wanted Christopherson to make an electronic invitation with President Donald Trump on it.
Christopherson wouldn’t do it. She dislikes Trump and said putting him on the invitation, even one that opposes him, promotes the Republican president.
In Christopherson and Walsh’s version of the story, the refusal led to Anderson screaming at Christopherson, telling her she should do what he says. Walsh says she tried to tell Anderson he was out of line. He then berated her, too.
Anderson insists he remained calm but told Christopherson he expected her to do this task.
Christopherson left the office for three hours and sat in a coffee shop. She called her boyfriend to ask if she should quit. He encouraged her to stay with Anderson until she found another job.
Side trips to his home
Walsh and Christopherson also complain of trips each made separately with Anderson to his home. He did not touch them or make advances, the women say, but both added that being alone with their boss in his house made them uncomfortable.
Anderson frequently eats lunch at a restaurant near his home not far from the U., and staffers often join him. Anderson says he always buys.
Walsh believed she couldn’t say no when her boss asked her to go to lunch.
After one meal, they made a stop at his home. Anderson wanted to show Walsh a blanket or rug that could go in the law office.
The two agree that he then showed her a rug in a guest bedroom.
Christopherson says another day Anderson wanted her to be at his home to let a repairman into his furnace room. Anderson and Christopherson went to the house ahead of time, and he showed her the furnace.
Anderson said in an interview that he had no hidden motives. He noted other staffers have been to his home. Four other former or current Anderson employees — three women and a man — confirmed they had been to his house, too.
Addressing the time he stopped at his home with Christopherson, Anderson said: “That goes to the implicit sexism in these kinds of complaints, because if she’d been a man, I don’t think a man would’ve conjured this up. Because it’s a woman, somehow it’s supposed to be different? They’re the ones that want different treatment. I’m not treating them any differently.”
Christopherson and Walsh decided they wouldn’t be alone with Anderson again.
They weren’t around him much longer. He fired Walsh on Jan. 23 and Christopherson three days later. Both received letters spelling out what Anderson saw as shortcomings.
To Walsh, Anderson pointed to mistakes she made in the drafting and editing of legal briefs and her inability to keep up with the office workflow. To Christopherson, he cited her level of inexperience and what Anderson called her unreliability and demand for more pay.
The male clerk
All former Anderson employees interviewed for this story agree upon Mason’s importance to the law practice.
Although Mason graduated from the U.’s law school only last month and doesn’t take the bar exam until next month, he has been with Anderson since the former mayor reactivated his law license in 2014.
Last October, when Anderson provided the judge in the Brewvies case with records of his firm’s billings, Mason is the only employee who received superlatives.
“His work has been impeccable,” Anderson wrote, “and he has spent long hours assisting in making certain the record in this matter was legally solid and persuasive and in ensuring legal research and written work was the highest quality.”
How Anderson treated Mason compared with Walsh and Christopherson would be important if Anderson’s office were bigger and subject to an investigation by the two agencies that probe discrimination at larger employers in Utah — the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division.
The EEOC and the UALD typically look first at whether the complainants made the mistakes they are accused of committing. If they did, the investigators then examine how the employer addressed those errors compared to when other workers made them.
Mason earlier this month said he has seen Anderson interact with all his employees and witnessed no gender bias, nor does he believe he’s been treated differently than other employees.
“I can understand why someone who doesn’t know us that well might think I’m being treated differently,” Mason said, “but really it’s just that we work so great together.”
Besides, Mason said, Anderson has been a harsh critic of his work at times, too, and that has improved the clerk’s skills.
Everyone is treated on his or her own merits, Anderson said.
“Walter is incredibly good and trustworthy with what he does,” he said. “It’s almost like he’s family. It’s not because of his sex.”
‘Best’ boss or ‘bad’ boss?
Anderson received his law license in 1978 and made a legal career out of civil rights cases.
“He was wonderful. Best boss I ever had,” said Ruby Rudisill. She was Anderson’s office assistant for nine years until he was elected mayor. She and her husband married in Anderson’s backyard.
Rudisill says Anderson was a fair boss who taught her a lot. She’s now self-employed as a court transcriptionist.
“He just didn’t put up with people messing around and stuff,” Rudisill said. “We were there to work, but we also played hard. We had parties on the weekend and also awesome Christmas parties.”
Anderson stopped practicing when he became mayor in 2000. He won re-election and started a second term in 2004.
In August 2005, Anderson fired former City Councilwoman Deeda Seed, who at the time was Anderson’s communications director. The ouster prompted Anderson’s executive assistant, Christy Cordwell, to quit.
“We have to sit there and listen to him berate us, degrade us, degrade other people,” Seed told The Salt Lake Tribune after the firing. “He regularly uses foul and derogatory language with regard to people who disagree with him. … He is ineffective and creates a hostile environment.”
Seed said she was considering filing a gender-discrimination lawsuit. Salt Lake City paid about $14,000 to Seed and Cordwell. The settlement came with no admission of discrimination by the city. Anderson, though he issued a public apology directed toward Seed and Cordwell, denied he discriminated.
“If I became impatient, if I became frustrated, if I said or did anything that hurt or caused anxiety to anyone, I’m sorry,” Anderson said at the time.
Seed declined an interview request for this story.
“He treated everyone equally bad,” Cordwell said Tuesday. “It was a very hostile work environment. It was like he always had to have a target.
“He would just call people stupid and [say], ‘You’re an idiot,’” Cordwell added. “And if you disagreed with him, he absolutely could not believe you would disagree with him.”
Days after the apology, the city released results of an employee survey that showed high job satisfaction among most city workers. Anderson left office when his second term expired in early 2008.
A liberal lion, he spent the next few years largely focusing on advocacy, overseeing a nonprofit called the High Road for Human Rights. In 2012, he ran for U.S. president on the Justice Party ticket.
Filings in the Brewvies case and interviews with former and current employees reflect the turnover at Anderson’s law practice, which typically has four or five people at any one time — Anderson, the law clerk, one other attorney and one or two support staffers.
Anderson had a total of 10 employees in the 21 months that ended in January. One part-time paralegal lasted a month before Anderson fired her.
Other than Mason, none of those nine employees stayed longer than a year.
One former employee, paralegal Shawn Parker, defends Anderson as a great boss. Parker says she never saw anything discriminatory or harassing and never saw him berate anyone.
“I really loved working for Rocky’s firm,” Parker said. “It’s probably the best job I ever had because it’s a job where I could work for my own agenda. I’m kind of a rebel.”
Parker was impressed by the cases Anderson undertook, particularly the free work for homeless or disadvantaged clients.
Parker left Anderson’s firm in fall 2017, she said, in part because she had trouble getting along with Walsh and Christopherson.
Another former employee, attorney Janet Conway, says she saw him yell at staffers and was the subject of some of his verbal abuse. At least once, Conway adds, Anderson made her cry.
“He got me very mad from time to time,” Conway said.
She did not work for Anderson at the same time as Walsh and Christopherson and says she didn’t see any behavior that amounted to discrimination.
“A hostile work environment in general?” Conway said. “Absolutely.”
Conway, who gained a Utah law license in 1996, spent much of her career representing musicians in copyright disputes. Her best-known client was funk legend George Clinton. In 2016, she decided she wanted to work in high-profile civil rights litigation. She answered an ad Anderson posted.
Conway says she and Anderson had mutual acquaintances, who warned her what kind of a boss he would be.
“I knew what I was getting into,” Conway said.
Court records show Conway was added as an attorney on the Brewvies lawsuit in August 2016. Anderson was handling other cases, too.
“He had way more cases than hours he had to handle them,” Conway said. “There was so much turnover. Every time someone new came in, they had a new system for handling everything.”
Anderson usually worked 60 hours a week, Conway recalled.
“He is a very volatile person,” Conway said, “short tempered — believes everyone should work as hard and as long as he did, and he set an impossible standard.”
Conway says she submitted a high number of billable hours, met deadlines and was good with clients. She says Anderson treated her better than he did other female staffers.
She left Anderson’s practice in February 2017. He threw her a party on her last day.
Conway calls Anderson a “brilliant” attorney and says no one is better when he’s committed to a cause.
“He’s very good,” she said. “He’s just an a--hole.”
Sienna Rogerson, 50, started as an office assistant days after Anderson fired Walsh and Christopherson. She says Anderson can be stern, but she’s never heard him yell at anyone.
“Voice raised? Yes, because he’s passionate,” Rogerson said. “But it’s never at us. It’s at the situation.”
Rogerson’s last day was June 8. She says Anderson treated her with gratitude, and she’s leaving on good terms.
“Rocky is intense all the time,” she said. “I’m just old enough it’s not for me anymore.”
Cody Reeves, an assistant professor who studies human resources in the management department at Brigham Young University, says some shows of emotion in the workplace can be beneficial, but frequent and intense displays of anger tend to damage relationships.
“Management styles,” Reeves said, “that’s a big reason why people choose to stay or leave a firm.”
Small shop, big loophole
Workplaces need to have at least 15 employees to be subject to federal or state workplace discrimination laws in Utah.
Walsh and Christopherson wanted to change that. In front of the House Business and Labor Committee on Feb. 26, they alleged, without naming Anderson, that his office was an example of why employees at small Utah businesses need the same protections as workers at big ones.
The House bill failed to advance, and Walsh and Christopherson have no legal options against Anderson. In fact, about 270,000 Utah employees — nearly a fifth of the state’s labor force — work at places too small to be subject to such equal employment laws, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Walsh noted in an interview that those employees also don’t have the in-house protections, like a human resources liaison, for example, that most workers at big businesses enjoy.
“In a small firm,” Walsh said, “you really have no one to tell other than the person who is discriminating or harassing.”
Anderson did not learn of the women’s testimony until The Tribune brought it to his attention earlier this month. He said that “on the whole” he runs a friendly office.
“Everybody’s very frank and candid with each other. And we all work hard, and those who don’t end up leaving — usually at my request.”
Correction at 1:24 p.m. on June 17, 2018: An earlier version of this story misstated the employment status of Karen Christopherson’s boyfriend. He was employed while Christopherson worked for Rocky Anderson.