A local resident has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Golden Corral, the popular Palm Coast restaurant on Cypress Edge Drive, alleging that two employees there inappropriately and repeatedly touched her and suffered no consequences, forcing her to quit “because the work environment became intolerable.”
The suit was filed in Flagler County Circuit Court at the end of April. In a response last week, Gold Coast Corral, the company under whose banner Golden Corral operates, called many of the allegations “immaterial, impertinent and scandalous” and that the complainant “cannot assert” that the employee she alleges harassed her did so “within the course and scope of employment.” The lawsuit, Golden Corral states, “contains vague and ambiguous factual allegations” so that the company “cannot be reasonabl[y] required to respond to the claims levied against it.”
The lawsuit and the company’s response raise questions about the extent of a company’s responsibility in protecting its employees from undue hostility and differentiates, in the company’s view, between issues involving peer-employees as opposed to employees and their supervisors or superiors. Golden Corral is arguing that its responsibility in this case was not in play.
It goes so far as to cite the case of a priest sexually abusing children to absolve itself of responsibility: “The court,” Golden Correal states in its response, referring to the precedent, “found that the pastor’s objectives were his own, and that he was not serving the interests of the church during the time he tried to seduce the minor or assaulted her.” In other words, since the employee accused of harassing the girl was doing so of his own volition, the company could not be held responsible, even though the alleged incidents took place on the clock. “Simply because an employee, like [the defendant], was at work or on duty at the time of the alleged act does not mean he was within the course and scope of employment,” Golden Corral argues.
That may sound like a startling assertion to most employees who entrust their workday to an employer. But it also reflects the relatively high bar complainants must clear in sexual harassment cases.
The plaintiff, now 18, began working at Golden Corral as a line attendant in March 2015, when she was 17. She claims Carlos Lnu, a fellow-employee then at that restaurant, “inappropriately touched the younger females at the waist, hips and on the butt, including [the complainant], who was touched by [Lnu] at least five times but less than 15 times.” Lnu was transferred to a restaurant in Georgia.
Cesar Reyes, who was part of the kitchen staff at the restaurant and was the manager’s brother, “began intentionally touching” the girl, according to the suit. Reyes, the suit states, “has a history of inappropriate comments and touching the female staff. This behavior was so prominent and well known that the other females would say ‘We know how Cesar acts’ and ‘Cesar is at it again.’”
Reyes, the suit claims, would touch the complainant in various parts. The gravest allegation dates from July 15, when he asked the girl to help him with the trash, as was common for female employees to do. Once in the trash room, where there are no surveillance cameras, Reyes, the suit alleges, “grabbed her arm, grabbed her buttocks and forcibly kissed her shoving his tongue down her throat.” Reyes’s fiancée, who worked at the restaurant, was subsequently fired for leaving her station after she heard of the alleged incident.
The girl’s sister, who also worked at the restaurant, let her know that rumors about the alleged encounter in the trash room were spreading at the restaurant, though instances of sexual harassment continued, according to the girl, while Reyes “never had any consequences. He had a feeling of invincibility and believed he was untouchable,” the suit claims.
The girl’s mother met with Tony Rubio, owner of the Golden Corral franchise in Palm Coast, to discuss the issue. Rubio, according to the suit, said there was no proof, but that if it happened again that he should be notified. Reyes “continued to inappropriately touch the female staff including [the complainant] because there were no consequences for his sexual harassment,” the suit states.
Reyes’s brother, the restaurant manager referred to only as “Omar” in the lawsuit, is said to have held a meeting with the complainant, Reyes and Reyes’s fiancée (the timing of the meeting is not specified), at which the girl was asked to write a statement –but not given a copy of it when she requested it. After the meeting ended and the girl and Omar were left alone in his office, the complaint alleges, Omar said: “I know he did it to you, I believe you, he is my brother and I have been covering for him for years.”
The plaintiff is seeking damages in excess of $15,000, naming Reyes individually in the first count, and claims in the second count that Gold Coast Corral knew of Reyes’s propensities and should be held liable. The suit also claims that the restaurant negligently retained Reyes without an “appropriate investigation” after the issue came to light.
The second count focuses on the company’s responsibility: that’s the count the company is asking the court to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiff “cannot state a cause of action” under which damages can be awarded. The reason: an employer cannot be held liable “for the tortious or criminal acts of an employee, unless the acts were committed during the course of the employment and to further a purpose or interest, however excessive or misguided, of the employer.”