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By: Jason C. Dineros
Chloe Caras, a former female restaurant executive filed a sexual harassment suit last week against celebrity chef and Top Chef Finalist, Mike Isabella. Caras alleges that Chef Isabella and his company, Concepts, failed to provide sexual harassment training and educate managers to recognize sexual harassment and implement a program to address complaints. She cites the company’s absence of a human resources department from its inception in 2011, until this past October, and the jovial nature in which the company allegedly handles its sexual harassment training as evidence supporting her allegations.
The #MeToo Movement has brought to the forefront of business operations the need of not only having such training in place but also implementing methods to track its effectiveness and enforce its purpose. The challenge particularly in the restaurant industry comes in approaching a subject that was frequently a source of humor and typical flirting among those working in it. In an industry where anyone who has worked in it will agree requires a thick skin and resilient attitude, Caras’ suit falls in line with what has been a steadily rising trend of sexual harassment claims-turned-lawsuits in seemingly every industry—much less the hospitality.
In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986) 106 S. Ct. 2399, the landmark Supreme Court case ushering governance over sexual harassment claims, the Court held that 1) a hostile work environment violates Title VII, 2) conduct amounting to sexual harassment must be “unwelcome,” and 3) employers must be on notice of the conduct to be liable for their employees. While not to be confused with a position that condones any level of sexual harassment—in its unadulterated definition, meaning unwelcome sexual conduct—at what point do the playful flirtatiousness and mutual banter, albeit often immature and often times (in the restaurant industry) perverse, cross the line and become sexual harassment?
As the #MeToo movement continues to gain support, employers can expect to see a rise in employee complaints about workplace behavior. When faced with such complaints, employers will have to be vigilant in promptly investigating these complaints, fairly assessing their merit and executing a plan that resolves the situation. Such a protocol will provide employers the best opportunity to identify and resolve workplace conflicts.
For further information or for further inquiries involving hospitality law or labor and employment law, you may contact Jason C. Dineros, the Chair of the Hospitality Law Practice Team of Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP, at [email protected].