Colorado Renaissance Festival in the Clear on Title VII Accusations

Michele St. Michael stands at her booth, which has since been destroyed, at the Colorado Renaissance Festival decades ago.
Michele St. Michael stands at her booth, which has since been destroyed, at the Colorado Renaissance Festival decades ago. King & Greisen, LLP
The Colorado Renaissance Festival is best known for sweeping visitors up into the fantasy world of a sixteenth-century marketplace in “Larkspurshire." But it's recently had the less heroic role of being the defendant in an extensive five-day jury trial in federal court. Michelle St. Michael, a longtime festival tarot card reader, had accused the festival of unlawfully terminating her contract in retaliation after she reported an incident of sexual harassment, thus violating Title VII, the clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employment discrimination.

St. Michael said that late one night in 2013, as she was attempting to leave the festival, manager Dave Walker took her entrance pass and demanded oral sex in return for it. St. Michael fled and reported the attempted assault to her supervisor the next day but says that nothing was done to address the incident. St. Michael believes that Walker tried to smear her reputation and advocate for her removal, because after the 2015 season, she was not invited to return to the festival.

But after hours of testimony by ten witnesses embedded with the festival, the jury came to the verdict that St. Michael was not technically an employee of the Renaissance Festival and thus did not have grounds for a Title VII claim.

"I broke through the wall" of calling attention to sexual harassment, St. Michael says, "but I didn’t necessarily get over it."

Although the trial is over, there is an ongoing battle over one of the most contentious aspects of the lawsuit. “What [St. Michael] wanted to accomplish was to make [festival owner James Paradise Sr.] understand that he needs to have a sexual harassment policy," Diane King, one of St. Michael's attorneys, says. 

According to festival attorney TR Rice, it currently has no official procedures on reporting and addressing sexual harassment beyond his recommendation “that you use common sense and you go and see Mr. Paradise. That’s the best policy.”

As the jury upheld, festival “crafters” like St. Michael aren't technically employees. Rather, they sign annual contracts that allow them to lease a space at the festival for eight weeks, and lease the booths they build and maintain back to the festival for the rest of the year; the festival refers to them not as independent contractors ,but "lessees." But King argues that while they aren’t directly paid by the festival, they should be considered employees because of the amount of control that Paradise — known as the "King of the Festival" — has over their work. According to his “Rules & Regulations of the Realm,” crafters have to, for example, be at their booths when they’re open, have to dress like sixteenth-century artisans from head to toe, and can’t openly use technology that would reveal them to be mere modern-day impersonators.

“You’ve got to do that, because that’s what brings in the people to help patronize the crafters,” Rice explains. “All of the rules in the lease and the Rules of the Realm are there for no reason other than to promote the sixteenth-century marketplace atmosphere.”

St. Michael says the rules make for a tense workplace for the crafters, who are afraid to step out of line. For example, she says she was once reprimanded for leaving her booth during festival hours to use the restroom.

She says she's heard of plenty of incidents of sexual harassment from other crafters and employees. She tried to get them to come forward when she made her initial Title VII complaint, but "they were all afraid that if they spoke out they would lose their jobs," she says. "A lot of these people just seem to think that this [sexual harassment] was normal. They’re in a bubble with this renaissance organization."

Rice insists that he has heard of no incidents of sexual harassment or assault at the festival in his twenty years working with it. “I would say that this was not a #MeToo case, but yet the plaintiff wanted to hop on the bandwagon,” Rice says.

And of the incident St. Michael describes in 2013? “I can virtually guarantee you it did not occur,” Rice says. He has known Walker for over twenty years, he says, and a longtime festival employee testified that St. Michael “was drunk” the night of the incident. Those factors have convinced Rice that St. Michael was lying: “I suspect that she was tired of Dave Walker telling her what to do or what not to do, that she had an ax to grind,” and made up a story, he says.

St. Michael insists that it was Walker, not herself, who was under the influence that night: "When I encountered him that night, he was swaying around and was moving around in a very erratic way. It was creepy, very creepy." St. Michael's friend testified that she called her the night of the incident to tell her what happened, and her craft coordinator testified that St. Michael reported the incident the next day. "So all the women are lying?" King asks sarcastically. 

During the trial, Walker, who still works for the festival part-time, denied that he had sexually harassed St. Michael, and Paradise denied hearing about her report. However, while Paradise was at the witness stand, he reversed earlier assurances that he had never discussed St. Michael with Walker. Instead, according to King, he testified that the two had joked about St. Michael together repeatedly in the years before denying her the option to renew her lease.

While the Colorado Renaissance Festival is off the hook for compensating St. Michael or otherwise being held culpable for violating Title VII, the jury did find that it can be considered an employer under Title VII. The plaintiff argued that including its other festival in Pittsburgh, the festival has over fifteen employees for more than twenty weeks a year, which, according to Rice, won’t technically change anything for the festival, since it only loosely puts it into the category of employer. But it will “consider what needs to be done in terms of potentially implementing a sexual harassment policy.”

King is working with other civil rights attorneys to push Colorado to change its laws so that people in St. Michael's position don't run into this technicality. According to a recent report by the National Women's Law Center, since the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017, five states have expanded workplace harassment protections to independent contractors and interns, and another four have expanded their statute of limitations on filing a claim. “[St. Michael] was sexually harassed by a [festival] employee, and so that should be covered. Someday, I think the federal statute will be amended to fix that,” King says.

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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming