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Venture firm CMEA sued for sexual harassment, retaliation

By Sarah McBride

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Three executive assistants are suing venture firm CMEA and one of its former partners for harassment and retaliation, marking the third lawsuit in less than a year alleging unfair treatment of women in Silicon Valley's clubby world of venture capital.

The suit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court of California last month, alleges then operating partner John Haag repeatedly made inappropriate sexual comments to the women, sometimes in front of other partners who mostly did nothing to stop his behavior.

"CMEA treats all employees with absolute dignity and respect, and CMEA bent over backward to treat these administrative assistants with absolute professionalism," said Lara Villreal Hutner, a lawyer for CMEA, who denied the allegations had factual basis. "CMEA is confident it will prevail in this matter."

CMEA was founded in 1989 and has an emphasis on energy and materials, information technology, and life sciences.

"John Haag looks forward to the truth coming out in the course of this lawsuit and plans to vigorously defend himself," said his lawyer, Marcie Isom. "He trusts the justice system will completely vindicate him."

The case mirrors elements of an ongoing lawsuit brought last May by Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, against that firm.

Pao alleges that another partner, Ajit Nazre, made sexual advances to her and retaliated once she rebuffed him. She also claims the firm engaged in systematic discrimination against women.

In September, former Pantheon Ventures principal Carol Foster sued that firm for gender and age discrimination, as well as defamation.

Until last year, lawsuits over accusations of gender discrimination or harassment have been rare in the male-dominated world of venture capital.

Two of the plaintiffs in the CMEA case, Margaret Hines and Shannon Schlagenhauf, allege the comments dated back to 2009, when they joined the firm. The third plaintiff, Dawn-Shemain Weeks, joined in 2011.

After the women made a formal complaint last year around April 30, CMEA arranged for its human resources provider, Tri-Net, to investigate the women's concerns. After the investigation, CMEA negotiated a buy-out of Haag's interest in CMEA's funds, the lawsuit states. Haag's LinkedIn profile states he left the firm last year.

The plaintiffs say their overtime opportunities, typically around 25 percent or 30 percent of their income, have dropped since reporting the harassment, while their workloads have increased. They say some managing directors continue to make inappropriate comments.

Weeks resigned at the end of January. "Weeks is not comfortable working in a work environment that continues to condone inappropriate sexual conduct and retaliation," the suit says.

The women are asking for an unspecified amount of damages and legal fees.

The lawsuit is in Superior Court of California, San Francisco County, CGC 528602.

(Reporting by Sarah McBride; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry)

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