The Office of the New York State Attorney General (AG) announced in early January 2020 that it had reached a settlement with a restaurant owner accused of sexual harassment. New York City sexual harassment law protects workers from harassment on the basis of sex through statutes at the federal, state, and local levels. The AG’s complaint included alleged violations of city and state law. Under the settlement agreement, the restaurant owner will pay a six-figure sum to eleven former employees, followed by a share of the restaurant’s profits for the next decade.
Sex discrimination is considered an unlawful employment practice under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). Court decisions have established that sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination. Both state and city law specifically mention sexual harassment as an unlawful practice. The NYSHRL, for example, mentions sexual harassment in its definition of “employer.” N.Y. Exec. L. § 292(5). The NYCHRL identifies sexual harassment as a violation of public policy. N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-101.
Unlawful sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, or when submitting to sexual conduct is a condition of one’s employment. The objectionable conduct may range from bawdy jokes to outright sexual assault.
The New York Times reported in December 2017 on allegations against the restaurant owner, which included claims of “playful sexual banter” and non-consensual touching and groping. The Times article described one area of the restaurant as “a renowned private playroom for handpicked V.I.P.s,” while employees and others reportedly called it “the rape room.”
One former employee said that she feared speaking out because the owner allegedly “bragged about blacklisting people all the time.” The restaurant’s system of internal investigations, according to the Times, involved reporting alleged misconduct to restaurant managers. At the same time, managers reportedly “were often promoted because they were close to [the owner],” and therefore were unlikely to investigate allegations of sexual harassment. Some managers interviewed by the Times said “that they themselves were too afraid of [the owner’s] verbal abuse to take action.” The restaurant hired a human resources director shortly before publication of the 2017 article.
The AG initiated an investigation of the restaurant owner in 2018. It issued a subpoena in August of that year seeking documentation of “sexually suggestive communications between [the owner] and any employees.” The AG also sought information about a celebrity chef who invested in and regularly visited the restaurant. That part of the investigation is still ongoing as of January 2020.
The settlement agreement includes a section on the AG’s findings. The AG “concluded that since at least 2005 [the restaurant] maintained a hostile workplace” that included “severe and pervasive incidents of unwanted touching and unwelcome sexual advances.” The owner agreed to pay $240,000 in damages to eleven former employees, and to step down from any managerial or supervisory role. Additionally, the former employees will receive twenty percent of the restaurant’s profits over the next ten years. If the owner sells his interest in the restaurant during that time, they will receive a percentage of the sales proceeds.
The skilled and knowledgeable employment lawyers at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of employees, former employees, and job seekers in the restaurant industry in New York City, representing them in claims under city, state, and federal law. Please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.