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New Pine Ridge Restaurant settles sexual harassment, wrongful termination claims

By: Cristina Janda//February 20, 2013//

New Pine Ridge Restaurant settles sexual harassment, wrongful termination claims

By: Cristina Janda//February 20, 2013//

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Case type: Employment
Case name: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Sherry L. Brown v. Merrill Pine Ridge LLC and Kim’s Wisconsin LLC, both d/b/a New Pine Ridge Restaurant; Shahi Selmani; and Qemal Alimi
Court: U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin
Injuries claimed: Sexual harassment and sexually hostile working environment, wrongful termination of employment
Special damages: Back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive relief, attorney fees, costs
Award amount: $41,000
Date of incident: March 2009 through June 29, 2009
Disposition date: Jan. 14, 2013
Plaintiff’s attorneys and firm: Dennis Raymond McBride of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Milwaukee, Jean Kamp of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chicago, and Richard Wasik of the Law Office of Richard J. Wasik, Chicago
Defendant’s attorney and firm: Jeff Scott Olson of the Jeff Scott Olson Law Firm SC, Madison

Merrill Pine Ridge LLC and Kim’s Wisconsin LLC, both doing business as New Pine Ridge Restaurant in the city of Merrill, settled a lawsuit Jan. 14 alleging claims of sexual harassment and a sexually hostile working environment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against the defendants Aug. 22, 2011, in federal court. According to the complaint, plaintiff Sherry L. Brown was an employee of the New Pine Ridge Restaurant from approximately March 2009 through June 29, 2009. The Merrill restaurant was solely owned by Qemal Alimi since November 2008.

Brown worked as a waitress at the restaurant, primarily during the third shift, which ran from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. She claimed that while working at the restaurant, male management employees, including cook Shahi Selmani, made unwanted and uninvited physical contact with her including groping of her breasts and made lewd and sexually harassing comments to her. Brown reported the physical assault to the Merrill Police Department and the police arrested Selmani for his alleged battery.

She said she also told her shift supervisor about the incidents and that it was not the first time those male employees had done such a thing. She claimed male employees had done similar things to other waitresses at the restaurant, as well.

In addition, Brown reported the incident to the restaurant owner. Shortly afterwards she was discharged from her employment.

According to court documents, Selmani pled guilty Dec. 9, 2010, to Class A misdemeanor battery charges involving Brown and two other waitresses. Lincoln County Judge Glenn Hartley sentenced Selmani to 15 days in jail under Wisconsin’s work release law and two years of probation. The judge also ordered Selmani to undergo evaluation and counseling and to have no contact with the three waitresses.

In the lawsuit, Brown and the EEOC argued the defendants violated Title VII when they retaliated against Brown and other female employees by terminating their employment after they complained of sexual harassment. The plaintiffs asserted the defendants and management at the restaurant were aware of the incidents and failed to take any steps to cause the male employees to cease such behavior. The plaintiffs contended the defendants violated Title VII and the Wisconsin Criminal Code §§ 940.19, 940.44, and 940.225.

The plaintiffs also brought claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The plaintiffs requested injunctive relief from the court in addition to compensatory and punitive damages, back pay, attorney fees and costs.

Defendant Merrill Pine Ridge LLC, doing business as New Pine Ridge Restaurant, generally denied the plaintiffs’ allegations. In its answer filed Sept. 20, 2011, Merrill Pine Ridge in particular denied any unlawful employment practices occurred. It also argued that portions of the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the applicable statutes of limitations. In a letter to the EEOC, the restaurant reportedly stated that it had “closed off the area where waitresses and cooking staff took their breaks and instructed the waitresses to take their breaks in an area different from the cooking staff to avoid any contact.”

The restaurant apparently issued a written anti-harassment policy in January 2011, which stated in part that “when experienced or observed, [harassment] should be reported immediately to the supervisor, head waitress . . .”

In a deposition, Alimi testified that he believed the women were not telling the truth about Selmani’s alleged harassment. Alimi further testified that he bailed Selmani out of jail after his arrest for one of the alleged assaults and testified that it was easier to find a qualified waitress than a cook.

The court dismissed defendants Selmani and Alimi from the case. Specifically as to Alimi’s motion to dismiss, the court had found there was no individual liability under Title VII, there was no private right of action to a civil claim under the Wisconsin criminal statutes cited in the complaint, and the FLSA claim failed to meet the notice requirements of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

A jury trial was scheduled to commence Jan. 28, but the parties reached a settlement agreement beforehand. A monetary settlement of $41,000 is to be paid to Brown. In addition, the two defendants agreed to implement various training and reporting standards to prevent discrimination and unlawful retaliation.

The parties’ consent decree was signed by Judge William Conley.


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