Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Dane County, WI Pay $2.8 Million in Discrimination and Retaliation Lawsuit

Firm News Sexual Assault & Harassment
Mar 21, 2023

SEATTLE – Attorneys at Hagens Berman and Schroeter Goldmark & Bender today announce a $2.8 million settlement with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and Ronda Schwetz, the executive director of Dane County’s Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. This settlement concludes a June 2021 lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court alleging sexual assault by Schwetz at an AZA conference in Seattle and the following years-long effort by Schwetz and the AZA to cover up the allegations and destroy the survivor’s career prospects.

AZA is a national organization representing more than 235 zoos and aquariums in the U.S. and abroad, and serves as an accrediting body of member facilities’ standards of animal care. As part of the settlement, AZA and Schwetz will not only pay the survivor money damages, but they will also issue a public statement regarding the incident to all AZA members, and institute a third-party reporting and investigation system to respond to future harassment complaints.

The attorneys say the results will shape the landscape of future discrimination and retaliation litigation against professional organizations and improve the outcome for those who report harassment.

“Powerful professional organizations like the AZA cannot escape justice for sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation,” said Marty McLean, the Hagens Berman attorney leading the case. “It is past time for a reckoning for any organization that covers up abuse and harassment.”

“We believe this outcome sends a clear message to institutions who might think they are above the law,” he added.

AZA’s public statement to its members cites three separate accusations of unwanted sexual touching by Schwetz over a period of several years, including that central to the lawsuit.

AZA’s statement also acknowledges that it did not follow its own anti-discrimination policies and that it should have acted swiftly and decisively upon receiving reports of Schwetz’s misconduct and retaliation. The statement admits that gender dynamics played a role in the botched investigation, and apologizes for treating the survivor differently because he is male.

“It takes an incredible amount of courage for survivors to speak up, and they should be able to do so without fear of retaliation. This case ensures meaningful public accountability for blatant discrimination, and by requiring systemic changes within the AZA, we hope this case shows other institutions that they must protect people who speak up and properly respond when inappropriate conduct occurs,” said Elizabeth Hanley, the Schroeter Goldmark & Bender attorney leading the case.

AZA will also bar Schwetz’s attendance at AZA events for the next three years and will limit her attendance for five. Noted AZA leaders were also rebuked for leading retaliation, including Lori Perkins, the former deputy director of the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama and current vice president of Canopy Strategic Partners; Megan Elder of St. Paul's Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in Minnesota; and Cindy Cossaboon of the Denver Zoo in Colorado.

Schwetz was criminally prosecuted by the City of Seattle and remains under court supervision.