ITHACA, N.Y.—Two former employees have filed a $4 million lawsuit against HOLT Architects (Holt), a revered firm with fingerprints throughout central New York.

Sarah Hourihan and Whitney Van Houten are seeking damages from the company, alleging a male employee of the firm sexually harassed them by illegally obtaining lewd images of them from their personal electronic devices and that the company inadequately investigated and responded to the incident. The two opted to take their grievances to civil court after their attempts to seek resolution through the criminal justice system, and the company itself, were unsuccessful. 

The women explained in an interview with The Ithaca Voice how elements of a toxic work environment in the office would crop up occasionally throughout the years. Enough so that Van Houten said she had reported a fellow employee for sexual harassment, though nothing was done to the employee. Beyond that, Hourihan and Van Houten said their issues with the culture culminated in their discovery that personal photos of themselves and others had been allegedly stolen by a fellow employee and stored on the company’s server at work, along with potentially many others who worked or work at the firm. 

“After discovering this, I could barely open my computer to work. I told my bosses, every time I opened up my computer, it felt like I was undressing in front of someone,” Hourihan said.

The company claimed the incidents in question were “isolated” and not indicative of the company’s culture or practices. HOLT Architects is one of the most respected names in local architecture and design, with fingerprints throughout central New York. The business is responsible for an impressive list of projects, as well as a growing presence locally and involvement in a litany of prominent projects during Ithaca’s development boom over the last several years

But in its workplace, Hourihan and Van Houten allege that sexual harassment was dealt with inadequately and that, ultimately, it led to the traumatic and bizarre discovery for both of them of the stolen pictures. 

Hourihan began working at Holt Architects in 2013 as a design/project manager and Van Houten in 2016, as an architect designer. Both have now left the company. The suit, filed in February, states that around the end of 2017, the culture in the office began to worsen and become increasingly sexist, highlighted by inappropriate workplace comments made by a now-former IT Coordinator at the company, Eric Dixon. 

Those comments included statements about Van Houten’s weight loss and revealing that Dixon had a sexual dream about her, among others, according to the suit. Van Houten, said she reported the harassment to her bosses at Holt in January 2018, and showed the inappropriate messages to Graham Gillespie, a principal at Holt, upon request in May 2018. To her knowledge, the coordinator was never punished or held accountable for the messages in any way, despite Holt’s zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy. He eventually left the company in October 2018, nine months after the initial notification of misconduct, for another IT job.  

Years after that, on August 22, 2022 Hourihan says she made a jarring discovery. The suit details that while perusing the company’s server, Hourihan stumbled upon a folder named “Eric D,” presuming that it was named for the employee who had previously been harassing Van Houten. 

“Hourihan opened the folder and subfolders and discovered many nude and/or sexual photographs of women,” reads the suit. “Hourihan was shocked and closed the folder.” 

Hourihan reported the discovery to Holt’s leaders again, calling Quay Thompson, a Holt Principal who oversaw IT. She helped navigate Thompson to the folder to review it, after which he then ostensibly reported it to other higher-ups at the company, 

Hourihan also discovered further damning materials: “many nude and sexual photographs of dozens of women, […] amateur pornographic videos and screenshots of a college campus notification release for ‘crime of lewdness’ and a suspect description,” all stored on the company’s server that was accessible by all employees. 

“It was like a trainwreck,” Hourihan said. “I couldn’t look away.” 

In particular, Hourihan noticed a subfolder under the letter “W.”  Upon opening it Hourihan learned it stood for “Whitney Van Houten,” finding a trove of personal pictures of her colleague inside. 

“The photographs of Van Houten were sexual in nature and depicted varying degrees of nudity,” the lawsuit alleges. “Van Houten was shocked, appalled and scared that her private photographs were on her employer’s server. The nude and sexual photographs of Van Houten on the HOLT server were Van Houten’s personal property, and had been saved in a hidden and private folder on her cell phone.”    

“Shock, fear, I felt so violated, even before it was [my pictures],” Hourihan said. She resigned from the company in the weeks following her discovery. In part, due to her anger over how Holt handled the situation.  

More pictures were discovered as Hourihan looked through the subfolders during the phone call, realizing if Van Houten’s photos were under her initials then she should check her own. She found one titled “SH,” or her initials. Inside were “photographs of Hourihan, including private photographs of her in bikinis and of her under-breast area [the latter were taken to send to her doctor]. There were multiple copies of the same photograph in various altered/edited states,” according to the suit. 

The suit says Van Houten never provided any Holt employee access to the photographs, and they were not accessible via her work computer. This led Van Houten to believe they were stolen off of one of her personal devices, though she still isn’t quite sure how. The mystery and confusion surrounding the situation is one of the most infuriating elements for the two. 

“We don’t know what’s happened to [the pictures], we don’t know how long they were there, we don’t know who had access, we don’t know who put them there,” Van Houten added. “It could [have] spread all over the place.”

Lacking another explanation, Hourihan believes the pictures were somehow stolen off of her personal cell phone’s camera roll. Hourihan was told by Christopher Apker, Director of Human Resources at HOLT, not to disclose the matter to anyone, and Hourihan and Van Houten were both on several phone calls with Holt management over the subsequent two days. At one point, weeks after the discovery and apparently while the internal inquiry was being conducted, Hourihan said Holt Vice President Steve Hugo asked her what the company could pay for to “make it better,” according to the suit, in terms of trainings or security software.

While the pictures were in the “Eric D” folder, pointing to Eric Dixon, the company blamed Chris Holter, the IT coordinator who came after Dixon, according to the suit. He no longer works for the company, as of September 2022. Hourihan and Van Houten are both somewhat skeptical of that conclusion. Holt would not disclose the details or methods of its internal investigation when contacted by The Ithaca Voice

Hourihan stated she believes the company had formed a narrative of the crime through its internal investigation, that Holter had confirmed that account and confessed, and wrote a letter apologizing to Hourihan, which was delivered to her by Holt representatives. 

But since Hourihan and Van Houten were never presented the results of the investigation, they said they didn’t feel convinced of the investigation’s merits. This skepticism was fueled by the company revealing the pictures were stolen via computers. Hourihan and Van Houten both contest on the grounds that neither of them stored the pictures on their computers at all. The women also say the company did not ask for cell phones, other electronic devices or iCloud information as part of their internal investigation. 

In the weeks after the incident, Holter was quietly placed on a “personal leave,” and other employees were not told of the reason for it, according to the suit. Neither Holter nor Dixon could be reached for comment for this story. 

Hourihan, frustrated that the matter hadn’t been resolved or taken to law enforcement by the company, ended up going to the New York State Police. That investigation proceeded for a while and got to the point of conversations with Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten, who is not related to Whitney Van Houten, but after reviewing the information provided the District Attorney determined there was no criminal legal action to be taken. 

“The District Attorney’s Office conducted a careful review of the information provided by the two individuals,” Van Houten wrote in a statement to The Ithaca Voice. “There was no evidence that a crime was committed against them and therefore it is my position that the civil lawsuit is the appropriate venue to seek accountability for what took place.”

Hourihan argued that the conclusion finding no crime was committed was partially fueled by, in her mind, incomplete information provided by the company after its lackluster investigation. 

Still, the key question remains unanswered: How were the photos accessed? 

It’s not something the plaintiffs can answer, in part because they don’t know. The confusion over the circumstances, they say, is another substantial reason why the matter deserved more adequate investigation up-front. 

The suit states Holt’s internal investigation “impeded” the subsequent police investigation, since it gave Holter weeks of lead-time to get rid of evidence and protect himself from law enforcement’s investigation that followed. 

“Holt’s lack of investigation into the stolen sexual photographs results in plaintiffs’ permanent deprivation from any meaningful understanding of how their photographs ended up saved on the Holt server, and if, and how far, those nude and sexual photographs have been disseminated to others,” the suit contends. 

The two women and their attorney, Emily Turner, contend that is the biggest obstacle to criminal prosecution. Currently, the situation falls through the cracks of New York law, though it certainly has the look, smell and feel of a crime. If, as the company has declared, the phones were handed over consensually for updates or installations, there appears to be no crime associated with taking pictures off of a phone and storing them. However, both Hourihan and Van Houten vaguely remember giving their phones to Dixon only one time, but never to Holter.

Turner told The Ithaca Voice that If there was proof the pictures had been disseminated elsewhere, then the case could likely be brought under New York’s relatively new revenge porn laws. But without that, it appears the state’s legal code isn’t equipped to handle the case. Turner attributes that to archaic state laws that haven’t caught up to the modern age and the way digital photos can be passed, stolen, distributed, etc.

“Even if they handed over their phones, it doesn’t matter, there was still wrongdoing and harboring of the images by Holt [Architects],” said Turner. “Our tone on this is it doesn’t really matter, to a degree, what was happening in the office or who had their phones. Sure, it gives opportunity, and that could provide answers, which is what we want. But the images lived on the server and they were stolen somewhere along the line.”

When presented with a list of questions last week, Holt representatives opted to make a more general statement. Stephen Kimball, the company’s Director of Business and Marketing Development, insisted that it takes employee complaints seriously and followed suitable policies and legal guidelines in investigating the issue, though Hourihan and Van Houten both strenuously object to that claim. Holt also stated that there was an investigation into the incidents, using “external experts,” as well as cooperation with the New York State Police and the District Attorney’s office, finding no actual violations of the law. The District Attorney confirmed this. 

“Based on the investigations that were conducted, we believe that these were isolated incidents,” reads the statement. “They do not represent what HOLT stands for as an organization, our reputation as a great place to work, or how we are viewed in the community. We were disappointed by what we learned during the investigations of the alleged behaviors and, as a result, took immediate appropriate steps. We do not tolerate actions that violate company policy. The two employees named in the separate allegations are no longer with the firm.”

Holt’s statement continued that “the well-being of our employees has been a core value” since its founding and that they are “committed to fostering a positive, respectful, and inclusive work environment.”

“I’ve had a really hard time coming to terms with this overshadowing the majority of my career,” Hourihan said after her 10 year career at Holt. While looking for new jobs, she has made sure to ask for every company’s sexual harassment policy for a close review. “I designed a lot of projects that are being built right now, and it’s hard to even look at pictures of them. I feel like my accomplishments and my time, during my time at Holt, will be overshadowed by this, because this is all people will think about when they think of me. […] We didn’t do anything wrong, but this happened to us and it’s a part of our lives.”

At least up until the point they filed the lawsuit, Hourihan and Van Houten allege that no employees of Holt were notified of the discovery of the photos, taking particular umbrage that current and former Holt female employees’ whose personal photographs may have been stolen and placed on the server were not told of Hourihan’s discovery. Another former employee, who did not participate in the lawsuit, but is mulling legal action of her own, could not be reached for comment. Holt declined to answer The Ithaca Voice’s question regarding whether or not other female employees past or present had been informed of the issue. 

“There’s dozens and dozens of subfolders in there, and we don’t know who they are,” Van Houten said. “They could be other women who have worked at Holt, they could be other women who have contracted with Holt, other women out there somewhere. Part of what is disturbing about the lack of investigation is we don’t know who those people are. Those people don’t know that their images were stolen, and even though it’s painful to learn, they should know.”

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief of The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at