Search This Blog

Friday, May 30, 2014

Pasta Restaurant Settles Harassment Suit for $200,000


by Tommy Eden 



The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged in a Maryland Federal Court lawsuit that Basta Pasta restaurant owner Michael Sakellis repeatedly subjected female employees, some of whom were teenagers, to unwelcome and offensive sexual harassment, including touching them on their buttocks, lower backs and shoulders; rubbing himself against the buttocks of female employees; leering at female employees and making comments about their bodies, including calling them "sexy" or "hot;" making sexually suggestive remarks and crude sexual innuendos; and asking for massages. Basta Pasta's slogan is "Good food, Honestly prepared."  

Also, according to the allegations of the Complaint, the owner pressured female employees to have alcoholic drinks at the end of their shifts causing one employee to pass out and later wake up vomiting, and she believed the owner drugged her in an attempt to sexually assault her.  The EEOC lawsuit also charged that the owner took another female employee to his house, purportedly to talk about a management opportunity, but instead the employee believes he drugged and sexually assaulted her.  The identities of the girls were protected in the Complaint. 

These two employees of Basta Pasta found the sexual harassment so intolerable that both felt compelled to quit their jobs, the EEOC said in the lawsuit. The EEOC also claimed in the lawsuit that a restaurant manager had complained to management about the owner's sexually offensive behavior but was told to "keep her mouth shut" and later she was fired in retaliation for her opposition to the sexual harassment and her participation in the EEOC investigation. 

This week Basta Pasta agreed to pay $200,000 to settle claims of sexual harassment of workers and retaliation against the manager who complained about the behavior. The federal judge who approved the settlement also approved a three-year consent decree enjoining Basta Pasta from creating or maintaining a hostile work environment based on sex or engaging in unlawful retaliation in the future, and the restaurant must hire an independent monitor to investigate any sexual harassment or retaliation complaints and a claims process for victims to come forward.  

Common Sense Counsel: This case should be a wake-up call for all employers in the hospitality industry to not “let slide” this type of blatant and allegedly predatory conduct. Having a legally compliant Professional Conduct Policy and Prohibition Against Harassment Policy, annual employee-wide training, designating a two person reporting chain, prompt and effective investigation of complaints and taking proper remedial actions are keys to good risk reduction. Even an owner is not exempt and needs to make sure his conduct lives up to his slogan. 

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and 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 teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901. Blog at alabamaatwork.com.