The owners of Porta Bella Restaurant, Dametra and Mediterranean Restaurant agreed to settle a federal sexual harassment lawsuit.
Carmel-based JCFB Inc., operated by Bashar Sneeh and Faisal Nimri, was ordered to pay $175,000 to two former employees. In addition, the three-year consent decree issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires anti-harassment training for all JCFB employees. The EEOC announced the settlement on Thursday, Jan. 9.
The EEOC sued on behalf of a male line cook and a female dishwasher on Jan. 31, 2019 based upon complaints dating back to 2015.
According to the lawsuit, a male line cook at Porta Bella was repeatedly groped by kitchen manager Leonardo Sanchez and cook Victor Rivera after starting work at the restaurant in January of 2016. According to court documents, the cook complained to his supervisor, Chef Jacques Zagouri, but was told to ignore the incidents. When the cook took it up with the owners, Sneeh reportedly dismissed the complaint, saying “they only play.”
The cook reached out to an attorney, who issued a letter outlining the complaints. Court documents show that Zagouri reacted angrily to the letter. In July of 2016 the chef allegedly shoved and struck the cook, who then quit his job.
The complaints of the female dishwasher date back to December 2015, when she began working at Mediterranean. After her complaints were ignored she went to the EEOC in 2018, saying that Sanchez made sexual comments, once stuck his tongue in her ear and groped her. The suit also charged that Sanchez told her a promotion to line cook was only possible if she had sex with him.
When the case went before a federal court in San Jose in June 2019, JCFB argued that the dishwasher had missed the deadline to file a complaint. JCFB also said that the two worked in different restaurants, so the same people would not have witnessed the incidents.
U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh allowed the case to move forward, writing that “two of the three factors in determining whether a motion to intervene was timely weigh in favor of allowing intervention. The remaining factor does not weigh against intervention.”
In most complaints that arise, the EEOC reaches a settlement before it reaches the level of a lawsuit. Restaurant cases (as well as agricultural cases) represent a disproportionate number of suits, says the EEOC's San Francisco District director, Bill Tamayo.
"Nationwide, restaurants are the top employer in our sexual harassment cases," Tamayo says. Sexual harassment accounts for about 13 percent of the charges received at the EEOC, but closer to 25 percent of the cases the commission files in court, Tamayo says, "which means they don't settle." (In this case, the parties settled only after the EEOC proceeded with a lawsuit—distinct from a pre-lawsuit settlement.)
Farmworker and low-wage restaurant worker cases are a high priority for the EEOC, he adds, noting that in most farmworker cases, women don't come forward to complain until after they've been fired, adding a retaliation claim to their sexual harassment claims.
"Our priority on low-wage workers," Tamayo says. "They're the ones who are more vulnerable and unlikely to come forward and have a lot to lose."
Sneeh maintains there is no admission of wrongdoing on the part of the restaurant company in the settlement, and that it was a business decision.
"We totally deny the EEOC allegations, and we took appropriate action in response to the complaint at the time," he says. "We are a small restaurant, and could not afford to defend ourselves against this lawsuit by the federal government. We made a business decision to settle this, which is much less than it would have cost to defend ourselves and prevail."
He says it's for the same reason that JCFB did not settle before a lawsuit was filed: "We tried to do that, but the other side was asking for too much."
This story has been updated to reflect comments from Bashar Sneeh.
Sara Rubin contributed to this report.