Florida Keys

Former Ocean Reef CFO says she was punished for reporting misconduct by a male staffer

The Ocean Reef community in North Key Largo.
The Ocean Reef community in North Key Largo.

Months after a former employee of the exclusive gated Ocean Reef community in north Key Largo filed a sexual harassment suit against the man who ran day-to-day operations there, another woman has filed a suit describing the work environment he oversaw as hostile to female employees.

The latest suit does not accuse David Ritz, president of the Ocean Reef Community Association for almost 30 years — from 1992 until May — of sexual harassment. Rather it argues that he dismissed accusations of inappropriate behavior by another senior-level staffer, public safety director Tim James, and punished that man’s accusers.

Ritz, through his attorneys, denies any of the wrongdoing alleged in either complaint.

The suit, filed in federal court in May, also accuses the Ocean Reef Community Association of violating the Equal Pay Act by not paying the plaintiff, Elizabeth Marquardt, then vice president of finance and chief financial officer, as much as her male colleagues for performing the same work. Marquardt left the job about 18 months ago.

Ocean Reef is arguably one of the highest-security private communities in the United States, where celebrities and dignitaries like former vice president and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden stay when they’re in South Florida.

Robert Turk, an attorney representing the association, said in an email Friday, “Ocean Reef Community Association does not comment on pending litigation.”

In the February lawsuit, which has since moved from Monroe County to federal court, an unnamed woman going by “Jane Doe” in the complaint accuses Ritz of sexually harassing her for about 10 years after they ended a consensual relationship in 2007. She worked for Ocean Reef’s nonprofit cat trap-and-neuter program.

Jane Doe accuses Ritz of maintaining a website containing photos of her engaging in sexual acts that he used as leverage against her until November 2017. Ritz’s attorney, E. Bruce Johnson, called the allegations “baseless” and “outrageous” when the suit was filed, adding there is “no truth whatsoever” to them.

Christopher Stearns, one of Ritz’s other attorneys, stands by those statements, and said they relate to both cases.

“Like the Doe matter, the claims filed by Elizabeth Marquardt are baseless,” Stearns said Friday. “The allegations against Tim James were investigated and found to have no merit.”

In the wake of the February lawsuit, the Ocean Reef association, which is a co-defendant in both suits, placed Ritz on administrative leave with pay. The association issued a statement this week to the Miami Herald/FLKeysnews.com that Ritz resigned in May “to accept other employment.”

Stearns would not comment on where Ritz is employed. He remains a prominent Keys figure who sits on the boards of directors of several organizations, including the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority.

“David Ritz is currently pursuing multiple opportunities,” Stearns said.

Gary List, chairman of the association, said all salary information for Ritz or any other association staff is confidential.

In May, Marquardt, who is represented by the same attorneys hired by Jane Doe, filed a separate lawsuit against Ritz and the Ocean Reef Community Association in federal court alleging Ritz and James, “sponsored, promoted or permitted a toxic workplace environment hostile to its female workforce.”

Marquardt was the sole female vice president employed by the association during her time there from January 2016 through January 2018, her attorneys state in the complaint.

She says that during this time, she endured Ritz making repeated sexual jokes and comments about female staff members, and that he once bragged that he “never hired a bad looking woman.”

Marquardt’s attorneys Robert Weil and Marguerite Snyder wrote in the May 2 filing that female employees were often requested to attend “swimsuit parties,” which the lawyers argue were a “clear pretext to compel the display of ORCA’s female employees.”

Marquardt’s complaint accuses the organization of ignoring and dismissing her and other female employees’ concerns about misconduct. It also says the association paid women employees less than men for performing the same duties.

The complaint says the association allowed James to “harass, demote and force out ORCA female employees with impunity.” One woman staffer quit because of James’ alleged harassment, and another was demoted “following her objection to James’ treatment of ORCA’s Public Safety Department employees,” Weil and Snyder wrote.

James did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

In December 2017, Marquardt met with Ritz and the head of the Ocean Reef Community Association’s human resources department to complain about James’ alleged inappropriate behavior toward women on staff, according to the complaint.

Marquardt’s attorneys state, “Following and as a direct result of the December 2017 meeting, Ritz made it clear to” Marquardt “that she was at risk of losing her job.”

On several occasions the complaint states Ritz told Marquardt, “We didn’t have a CFO before, we don’t need one now.”

Marquardt resigned on Jan. 22, 2018, after she said she and a male colleague worked on the same Hurricane Irma “insurance claim-related relief work,” and that the man received a $10,000 bonus, but she did not. She claims this was retribution for complaining about James.

“Her resignation was the direct and proximate result of a hostile work environment that ORCA perpetrated, and which continued unabated,” Weil and Snyder wrote in the complaint.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.