Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello settles sexual-harassment lawsuit

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Categories of claims

Quid pro quo cases allege that an employment offer, promotion or threat of demotion is conditioned on unwelcome sexual advances.

Hostile-environment cases allege that the workplace is charged with pervasive sexual remarks or advances that unreasonably interfere with a victim’s work performance or create an offensive or hostile environment.

A sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by two women servers in March against Napa County-based celebrity chef Michael Chiarello and his restaurant companies settled, according to court documents filed Nov. 2 in San Francisco. A trial date had been set for July 17, 2017.

Chiarello owns Spanish-cuisine Coqueta restaurant on Pier 5 of the Embarcadero as well as Bottega Ristorante and Chiarello Family Vineyards in Yountville, about 8 miles north of Napa. His companies include Serra Hospitality Group and Gruppo Chiarello, limited liability companies founded in Yountville in 2011 and 2012.

Chiarello starred in cooking shows on PBS, Food Network and the Cooking Channel.

Katherine Page and Asja Sever, who worked as servers at Coqueta, filed lawsuits in March alleging sexual harassment along with claims about wages and expenses. Sexual harassment allegations were filed under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

“Soon after they began their employment,” the lawsuit alleged, “Page and Sever realized that the work environment at the restaurant was hostile, sexually charged and abusive.” The allegations included comparing a new sandwich to a vagina and Chiarello making overt sexual references.

Terms of the settlement details were not disclosed. Calls from the Business Journal to attorneys for both plaintiffs and defendants were not returned. Plaintiffs were represented by Kelly Armstrong, Matthew Vandall and Matthew Wayne of the Armstrong Law Firm, based in Sausalito; defendants were represented by Michelle Miller and Oswald Cousins of the Miller Law Group, based in San Francisco.

According to Santa Rosa-based attorneys who handle sexual harassment lawsuits, more than 90 percent of such cases settle before trial. Some settle so the defendant business can avoid costs and nuisance of litigation, including legal fees. Commonly in such settlements, the business admits no liability and neither party discloses the amount paid.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT DIPS

Dawn Ross, partner in the Carle Mackie Powers & Ross law firm in Santa Rosa, has handled employer defense litigation for some 27 years. A founding partner, she has been the only female partner in the firm.

“It has changed dramatically over that 27-year period,” Ross said, with sexual harassment claims “declining to it being almost nonexistent. People have gotten much more educated about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate.”

Only two sexual harassment cases in all that time went to trial, Ross said. One involved a female correctional officer accusing her supervisor of sexual harassment in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, her client.

The other case with a different client involved a male employee accusing his female supervisor of sexual harassment. “The owner of the company was an older gentleman” who viewed the claim as a form of blackmail and refused to pay a penny, Ross said. “It was a matter of principle. He’s probably 90 by now. He sat at the trial every day, enjoyed every moment of it. It was very satisfying” to defeat the plaintiff.

In those cases the employers won and “the plaintiffs wanted tremendous amounts of money,” Ross said. “We decided to take the risk of taking it to trial. In both cases, it panned out.”

Many companies settle cases to minimize distractions from business.

A typical case, depending on allegations and defendants, settles for amounts under $100,000, commonly $40,000 to $50,000 — what many companies would spend in legal fees to defend a claim.

Categories of claims

Quid pro quo cases allege that an employment offer, promotion or threat of demotion is conditioned on unwelcome sexual advances.

Hostile-environment cases allege that the workplace is charged with pervasive sexual remarks or advances that unreasonably interfere with a victim’s work performance or create an offensive or hostile environment.

“If it’s a small company with relatively small financials,” she said, “I have settled those cases for $5,000. If it’s a large employer, it’s going to cost more. I have settled a class-action sexual harassment case for a million dollars.”

Even with settlements, “employers worry that word will get out and others will try to shake the money tree also,” Ross said.

“Cases I have seen in recent years in the food industry have to do with some differences in culture,” she said. “For example, where Latino cooks are back-kitchen-type folk, were raised in a different environment with different mores and norms.”

She had a case where “some of the waitresses would say things that were perceived by the kitchen staff as flirtatious and they thought, oh, she must be interested in me,” Ross said, “when really the person was just being a little bit flirtatious.

“There have been (other) cases in the food industry that involved different cultural norms,” she said. “Even with some of my winery clients, that’s been true. If there are still sexual-harassment claims, they are often related to vineyard workers or folks that maybe come from a different cultural background and haven’t been through all the training that we have here about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

Sexual-harassment claims can be made under two categories: Quid pro quo cases allege that an employment offer or threat of demotion is conditioned on unwelcome sexual advances. Hostile-environment cases allege that the workplace is charged with pervasive sexual remarks or advances that unreasonably interfere with a victim’s work performance or create an offensive or hostile environment.

Some cases contain both claims. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. Cases can be brought under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act or in federal court under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees. A victim can be male or female, and does not have to be of the opposite sex.

A plaintiff in California must request a right-to-sue letter from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing within a year of the last act of discrimination. Once the letter is issued, a plaintiff has another year to file a lawsuit in civil court.

PICTURES, BLOWUP DOLLS

The dip in cases encourages Ross. “It used to be that people would have sexist pictures in their office,” Ross said, “or as gag gifts, give somebody a blowup doll. If you ask women who have been working for decades what the change has been, it has been huge.”

She recalls early years of her career as an attorney. “We were required to wear dresses,” she said. “Women were not allowed to wear pantsuits. We had judges comment on that.”

The change in workplace culture happened over 30 years.

“Most people have figured out where the lines are,” Ross said. “Did Donald Trump’s remarks surprise me? There’s still a fair amount of that talk that goes on, not in front of women, but among men when women aren’t present. It’s only sexual harassment if it’s affecting the woman’s ability to work, if it’s environmental, or she’s being required to engage in sexual favors in exchange for moving up. Women should be able to go to work and not have to deal with that.”

GORY DETAILS IN LETTER

Desiree Cox, a Santa Rosa-based plaintiff’s attorney for about 20 years, also sees the work environment improving. Young women are more likely to report perceived harassment. “They are more comfortable objecting to it,” Cox said, though they may not feel safe in doing so. There are still plenty of sexual-harassment cases reported.

“There are guys who have the proclivity to abuse women, put women down, keep them down, use them sexually, objectify them,” Cox said. “There’s a percentage of the population that is that way. It’s never going to change.”

What is changing is that women are becoming more empowered, Cox said. “Employers are realizing that if they don’t do something about it, they face substantial liability. Before, they would be very bold about it, and graphic. You do this for me or you’re out of here. Now, it’s more subtle. They’re sneakier.”

Sexual harassment happens in all kinds of businesses, though it may be more prevalent in restaurants, Cox said. “It’s everywhere,” she said. Restaurants “may be small operations, sometimes family-owned,” usually with few levels of management. “There’s a front-house and a back-house division that occurs. The back of the house is very close quarters. Chefs are in charge back there. They may feel like the rules that apply to the front of the house don’t apply to the back. There are dishwashers back there.”

There can be language barriers or big age differences. “Women can be hearing or seeing things they know they are offended by,” Cox said.

WOMEN STIGMATIZED

Women sometimes don’t report harassment because they are afraid they will be fired, badmouthed or lose references. “There is still a stigma with women who legitimately report,” she said. It may be tough to get another job in the same industry. “Women are always retaliated against,” she said.

In a restaurant, “cooks will mess with their food,” Cox said, referring to relationships with servers. “They will make food unattractive when the girl takes it out. That’s a form of retaliation.” Sometimes a dish goes out missing certain items, potentially affecting a customer’s satisfaction and then the amount of the tip. “She might get in trouble for it,” Cox said.

Restaurants often allow socializing between managers and employees. “Drinking and things go on after hours and blur the lines between employees and managers,” Cox said. She recommends that employers discourage socializing, especially on the business premises, and curb drinking by employees.

“There’s power at the front end of the house” in a restaurant, she said, with sections, seating, assigning customers. “I have seen women marginalized by how it is seated,” Cox said, “a four-top as opposed to a two-top. That should all be fair. Certainly don’t target somebody who has reported” harassment. “That would be retaliation.”

She has seen cases with graphic sexual harassment, including physical acts, “up the back of women’s skirts, grabbing,” Cox said. “Physical stuff is the worst.”

Sexual harassment can cut to the core of a woman’s psyche, Cox said. “They are doing a good job, as good as or better than the men. It goes to their value as a person, their work ethic, their feeling of accomplishment in life. In an environment where that’s not seen, it’s as bad as a physical assault.”

Training employees helps, but more important is for supervisors and owners to watch and listen. “When you hear that inappropriate joke or see that inappropriate email, don’t just say, oh that’s just Bob, how he is,” Ross said. “Go to Bob and say that’s not appropriate.”

For women, especially in supervisory or manager roles, pay attention to whether actions or communications in the workplace feel offensive. “If it’s offensive to me, it’s offensive to other women,” Ross said.

What might be fine for a woman to say could be offensive from a man. “What a cute outfit,” Ross said, suggesting talk among women. “That really makes your butt look small. We compliment each other on weight loss or how an outfit looks — the cuteness of it.”

Employers need to shape workplace culture and policies so sexual harassment never occurs, Cox said. “It has to start from the top,” she said, “respect for women in the workplace just like men. They have to be very strong that they will not allow retaliation by the harasser, by bosses.”

Without becoming victims of sexual harassment, women can foster change. “Women are rising in the ranks everywhere” as managers and owners, Ross said. “We might be more sensitive to those things than men. It’s our job to speak up.”

Cox agrees. “Women have to be on constant guard” in the workplace. “React very loudly and quickly: ‘Knock it off. I don’t like that. Stop it. Don’t do it again.’”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257

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