Popular Wine Country Bistro Sued for Sexual Harassment

Posted in #MeToo,Sexual Harassment,Sexual Harassment by Industry on May 10, 2018

By John D. Winer

May 10, 2018

A Napa Valley Institution, Bistro Don Giovanni is now at the center of a sexual harassment scandal. Our firm filed a new lawsuit on behalf of a kitchen worker who alleges sexual harassment, assault and battery by a kitchen co-worker. The lawsuit contends that management failed to address the mistreatment and hostile work environment.

Our client, Martha Patricia Venegas, claims her supervisor threatened to sexually assault and kill her, and made derogatory insults about her sexual orientation. The lawsuit contends there were numerous inappropriate incidents that occurred, including one in February 2017 when the supervisor rammed tongs into Venegas’ buttocks, causing her to cry in a bathroom. Venegas said she told upper-level employees, including the head chef, that she intended to file a police report.

Management told Venegas they would give the employee one “last chance” and one month later, the supervisor approached her and grabbed her butt. Venegas also alleges in the lawsuit that she reported her supervisor’s behavior again, after he groped her breasts.

Winer, McKenna, Burritt & Tillis LLP partner, Alexis McKenna told the San Francisco Chronicle that Venegas was “inspired to come forward and speak out about the behavior in her workplace as the restaurant industry continues to face its history of harassment.”

On May 3, I wrote an article in the Los Angeles Daily Journal discussing the series of lawsuits hitting celebrity chefs and how hierarchical organizations such as restaurants are a breeding ground for sexual harassment. One of the chefs I discussed was Mike Isabella. Isabella is an award-winning chef whose celebrity grew after his appearance on Season Six of popular TV show Top Chef.

More recently, Isabella was accused by a former employee of egregious sexual harassment and forcing his employees to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDA’s) in order to hide his behavior. When he was sued for this misconduct, the lawsuits also challenged the NDA’s in federal court alleging that his company retaliated against former employees for speaking up.

Isabella was accused of using derogatory slurs against former employee Chloe Caras, for commenting on her body and touching her without permission.

This case recently settled for an undisclosed amount with Isabella being quoted as saying, “I am happy to personally guarantee that we will strengthen our internal policies and practices and ensure all MIC employees work in a comfortable environment.” However, the settlement does not include any changes in the management of Mike Isabella Concepts (his restaurant company) meaning Isabella will continue to be an active part of the company.

As part of the terms of the Isabella settlement, employees at the company’s restaurants will undergo sexual harassment training. However, it requires a major shift in culture at the leadership level to truly change the way employees are treated in the workplace. It’s unclear how keeping Isabella in charge will change much.

The Washington Post did an in-depth investigative piece on Isabella, interviewing over two-dozen former and current employees and others who complained of rampant misconduct. Isabella and other members of management at his company are accused of making lewd comments, touching women without their consent, egging male colleagues on to sexually harass women and more. While Isabella denied these claims, they were made by numerous employees.

Few defendants choose to go to trial in sexual harassment cases, especially when the behavior is so over-the-line that dozens of employees and business associates are willing to come forward and discuss what allegedly transpired. In Isabella’s case, it was more than employees–former vendors spoke out and even his publicist cut ties with him and his company.

The bravery of women such as Ms. Caras is powerful because only when victims are willing to come forward and confront predators is it possible for the truth to come out and for the true severity of the situation to be exposed. In many cases, the women I represent are made to believe that A) they are the only victims and B) if they come forward they will be forced to stand alone. However, since the #metoo movement has gained strength, women are seeing how many others have been exposed to the same kind of behavior, often by the same perpetrator.