Association of Zoos & Aquariums Sued for Discrimination and Unlawful Retaliation

Jul 08, 2021

Seattle – The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) is the target of a new lawsuit brought by renowned researcher and orangutan expert Dr. Graham L. Banes claiming the association practiced discrimination and unlawful retaliation following an alleged sexual assault against Dr. Banes by Ronda Schwetz, executive director of the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. The suit was filed in King County Superior Court on June 21, 2021, by Hagens Berman and Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, whose attorneys are representing Dr. Banes.

According to the complaint, Ms. Schwetz became inappropriate and sexually aggressive toward Dr. Banes during a business trip to Seattle in 2018 for AZA’s Annual Conference. As soon as Dr. Banes reported the assault, the suit alleges that it set in motion a coordinated effort by the AZA to discriminate and retaliate against Dr. Banes for speaking out against Ms. Schwetz, which prevented his professional advancement.

“In this post #MeToo era, misguided organizations must be held accountable as much as the perpetrators who commit these crimes in order for justice to be fully served,” said Marty McLean, attorney at Hagens Berman. “Our goal is to send a clear message that not only should we denounce all forms of sexual assault and harassment, but that we must go further to protect victims from additional suffering.”

The suit outlines that at the time of the assault, Dr. Banes was working as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin in its School of Veterinary Medicine and held an office at the Henry Vilas Zoo where he reported to Ms. Schwetz. After Dr. Banes reported the sexual assault by Ms. Schwetz to local law enforcement, Ms. Schwetz was criminally charged for her conduct. Once Ms. Schwetz had no supervisory control over Dr. Banes, he reported the assault to the AZA, and soon after, there began a campaign of retaliation and discrimination against Dr. Banes.

The complaint cites that following the assault not only was Dr. Banes laid off from his position at Henry Vilas Zoo, but he was also blocked from a subsequent position at another zoo organization. Dr. Banes interviewed for a new position at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and secured the role amidst a highly rigorous and selective interview process. However, after Dr. Banes shared his new role with AZA’s CEO, his new Brookfield supervisor informed him of concerns about his character and suggested hearing things about Dr. Banes from individuals affiliated with the AZA. One week after he began his new position, Brookfield Zoo terminated Dr. Banes for “not upholding the zoo’s values,” and he was removed from all AZA committees.

“The harassment and assault Dr. Banes suffered was reprehensible and deeply troubling,” Elizabeth Hanley said, attorney for Schroeter Goldmark & Bender. “Like so many others who have bravely come forward, Dr. Banes should never have experienced the grossly inappropriate sexual assault that occurred while he was carrying out the responsibilities of his position. We must protect victims from the systemic retaliation Dr. Banes faced for simply speaking up against his abuse.”

The complaint for Dr. Banes’ discrimination claim and the unlawful retaliation claim alleges that Ms. Schwetz and AZA’s treatment of Dr. Banes constitutes discrimination and as a direct result of their misconduct, he sustained injuries and damages, both past and future, for pain and suffering, emotional distress, anxiety, adverse physical and/or debilitating symptoms and conditions, loss of enjoyment of quality of life, loss of earnings, diminished earning capacity, medical and psychological treatment expenses, and other damages in an amount to be proven at trial.

About Hagens Berman:

Hagens Berman is one of the nation’s leading class-action law firms, and has earned an international reputation for excellence and innovation in groundbreaking litigation against large corporations. Since its founding in 1993, the firm has continued to raise the standard of plaintiffs’ litigation, as shown by the Hagens Berman’s many accolades and firmwide awards. Find more at

About Schroeter Goldmark & Bender:

Founded in 1969, Schroeter Goldmark & Bender (SGB) is a nationally recognized law firm based in Seattle that holds the most powerful companies, government agencies, and people accountable for their wrongdoing. SGB specializes in representing injured persons in asbestos and mesothelioma, catastrophic injury, brain/spinal cord injury, medical malpractice, unsafe products, wrongful death, and sexual assault and harassment cases. The firm believes the law is a force of good and is committed to achieving justice for people who have been harmed. Find more at

Media Contact:

Kristi Herriott


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Case No.

21-2-08166-1 SEA