Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Iggbo received this afternoon.
In the wake of the sudden death of one of its co-founders, a fast-rising Richmond startup is being sued by a former employee who claims she was the victim of a “sexually hostile work environment” and discrimination, fueled largely by the alleged advances of the now-deceased executive.
Iggbo, which launched in 2015 with an Uber-like business model to simplify the blood-drawing process, was sued earlier this month by former vice president of operations Janis Rosenberg on counts of sex discrimination, retaliation, discrimination under the Equal Pay Act, and breach of contract for an equity share of the company she says she was promised but never received.
Rosenberg, who resigned in April, filed suit against the Henrico-based tech startup in Richmond Federal Court on Oct. 12.
Rosenberg’s suit also names as defendants Iggbo CEO Nuno Valentine and chief medical officer Shaival Kapadia on a count of defamation.
The dispute, according to a 26-page filing, “arises from the sexually hostile work environment created by the continuous and extreme sexual harassment of (Rosenberg) by her direct supervisor, Mark Van Roekel.”
Van Roekel, who had been president and co-founder of the firm, died in March. The lawsuit states Van Roekel’s death was by suicide, committed in a motel room in Winchester three days after Rosenberg filed an internal complaint of sexual harassment against him.
Rosenberg began working at Iggbo in January 2015, after nearly two years in senior positions at the former Health Diagnostic Laboratory.
According to the suit, she accepted a lower salary than what she earned at HDL on the basis that she would receive an equity share of Iggbo, to be determined two months after her hiring. Rosenberg reported directly to Van Roekel.
Over time, the case alleges, “Van Roekel’s attitude towards plaintiff gradually changed. Van Roekel became uncomfortably friendly and much more intimate.”
The suit claims that during a 2016 business trip, “Van Roekel was very friendly and continued to discuss intimate details about his marriage when he and plaintiff were alone … Van Roekel often discussed how ‘suited we (he and Plaintiff) are for each other,’ or words to that effect.”
The suit also claims Van Roekel, who was married with two daughters, would refer to Rosenberg as his wife and “honey” and sent her sexually suggestive cards and text messages.
The case alleges that over her first year on the job, Rosenberg never received her equity share, despite repeatedly inquiring. Her suit claims that less experienced male employees at Iggbo received their equity during that time, while also earning a higher salary.
Rosenberg alleges that she and Van Roekel had a performance evaluation meeting in January 2017, during which she asked why she hadn’t yet received the equity share.
“Van Roekel … stated Iggbo was going to create a stock incentive program and Plaintiff (Rosenberg) would be able to participate in that. At this time, Van Roekel continued the conversation without missing a beat and leaned back in his chair and said to Plaintiff, ‘Why haven’t we had sex yet?’” the suit claims.
“It was clear Van Roekel had been and was creating a quid pro quo work environment and situation by holding out the prospect of Plaintiff possibly receiving her long-promised equity incentive if she would only have sex with Van Roekel,” the suit continues.
Rosenberg submitted her complaint of sexual harassment by Van Roekel to Valentine on March 19. Three days later, Van Roekel committed suicide, the suit states.
In the aftermath of her internal complaint and Van Roekel’s death, Rosenberg alleges she was treated differently at Iggbo.
“Valentine and other male executives at Iggbo purposefully isolated Plaintiff from team meetings and group e-mails, related to Plaintiff’s job duties and responsibilities,” the suit claims.
The case alleges that Valentine thereafter “openly berated” Rosenberg during company conference calls and more.
“Valentine began using strong, accusatory, and abusive language towards Plaintiff, including, but not limited to, accusing Plaintiff of lying, not knowing her job or what she is doing over the last two years, and threatening Plaintiff with termination of her employment with Iggbo,” the suit alleges.
The suit also claims that “Valentine, Kapadia, and others at Iggbo, knowing it was false, repeatedly told other employees at Iggbo that Plaintiff’s relationship with Van Roekel was consensual.”
Rosenberg involuntarily resigned from Iggbo in April 2017, “due to the continued and escalating abusive behavior of Valentine.”
She is now COO at Creo Wellness, a firm founded by former HDL CEO Tonya Mallory.
On June 19, 2017, the case alleges, Kapadia called Mallory and stated “the relationship between Mark and Janis was very much mutual and Janis was as much to blame as was Mark.”
Rosenberg alleges Kapadia made this, among other statements, “in an effort to minimize and discredit Plaintiff’s claims of sexual harassment against Van Roekel.”
In April, Rosenberg filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She received a notice of right-to-sue from the EEOC in August.
She is seeking an unspecified amount of damages against Iggbo, Valentine and Kapadia.
She is being represented by attorneys James Thorsen and Jesse Roche of Thorsen Hart & Allen. Thorsen did not return calls seeking comment.
Iggbo spokesman Paul Spicer said in an email to BizSense: “Iggbo is committed to creating a diverse and respectful workplace culture. We take any allegations of a hostile work environment extremely seriously and are continuing to conduct a detailed investigation. Iggbo places the highest priority on fair treatment of all employees.”