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Monday, March 5, 2012

Grill Pays Server $200,000 to Settle Customer Harassment


Alabama@Work
Tommy Eden, Attorney

The owner/operator of a Hurricane Grill and Wings restaurant franchise in Royal Palm Beach, FL, agreed this week to pay $200,000 to settle a class sexual harassment lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The suit alleged that the restaurant permitted female servers to be sexually harassed by a customer, a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy. Later, the company fired a female server after management learned she had hired a private attorney to assist her in filing an EEOC complaint.

Sexual harassment by a customer, and retaliation for complaining about it, may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The suit alleged that the female servers were frequently grabbed on their breasts and buttocks and humiliated by sexual innuendo, as well as direct invitations to join the harasser and his wife in ménage a trois. The litigation apparently got so hot, that while the case was pending, the prior owner sold its interest in the Royal Palm Beach location to another franchisee. As successors in interest, the new Hurricane Wings management agreed to be a party to the suit for purposes of complying with future relief.

As part of the consent decree, Hurricane Wings management agreed to amend and redistribute its sexual harassment policy; offer training to all employees, including management; post a notice regarding its continued effort to ensure that the Royal Palm Beach location is free of sexual harassment and its intent not to retaliate further; monitoring and reporting to the EEOC; and a written request for the offending patron to stay away from the facility.

Common Sense Counsel: Employees should feel safe at work and employers must protect their employees from a sexually hostile work environment. Title VII requires an employer to prevent known sexual harassment created by other employees, vendors or customers. Hurricane Grill and Wings had a responsibility to protect their employees regardless of the status of the harasser. A high percentage of sexual harassment charges are filed by women in the restaurant industry and this case serves as fair notice that there are protections for the rights of this particularly vulnerable segment of the work force.

For Alabama employers there is no substitute for a well drafted written policy against harassment of all typs, distribution of the policy with a signed employee acknowledgment, awareness training on the policy and a procedure to investigate and resolve complaints. And do not allow a harassment situation involving a customer or vendor directed at your employee to continue. Employers have an obligation to protect employees from sexual predators; including those wearing a uniform.

Tommy Eden is a Lee County native, an attorney with the local office of Capell & Howard, a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at tme@chlaw.com, 334-501-1540 or www.AlabamaAtWork.com.