Cheesecake Factory sued by workers

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed suit against Cheesecake Factory Inc., saying male-on-male sexual harassment occurred at one of the chain's restaurants and that supervisors ignored complaints.

The class-action suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Arizona, alleges that three victims were harassed for months by groups of male employees at the chain's Chandler, Ariz., restaurant. The men were allegedly grabbed and forced to endure simulated sex with their clothes on, the complaint said.

"It was unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that made all these guys feel uncomfortable and unsafe, and affected their ability to really do their jobs," said commission attorney Mary Jo O'Neill. "They were constantly worried about being grabbed."

Moreover, Cheesecake Factory managers were aware of the problem and "seemed to kind of find the whole thing amusing," O'Neill said, and did not take measures to stop the harassment or discipline the suspected employees. She added the commission believed there were more victims.

One of the three men, Bryce Fitzpatrick, said he was harassed more than 20 times while he worked as a kitchen supervisor. Fitzpatrick, 23, said he would be cornered by about five to 10 co-workers -- usually cooks and dishwashers -- who would lift his legs into the air and grind up against him in the restaurant's kitchen area.

"It was like they were gang raping you," Fitzpatrick said. "There were instances when it happened a couple times in one day."

Calabasas-based Cheesecake Factory released a brief statement late Thursday saying that the company was committed to providing "a positive, productive and professional work environment."

"We have worked in good faith with the EEOC to try to resolve these allegations," the statement said. "We believe all our staff members should be treated with dignity and respect."

The suit did not name any of the employees who allegedly harassed the men or specify how many people were involved. The harassment began in or prior to November 2004, the complaint said.

The suit seeks monetary compensation for the victims and an injunction ordering the 143-restaurant chain to improve its policies and training programs to prevent the situation from occurring again.

Recent sexual harassment cases show the problem is not uncommon, O'Neill said, noting that about 16% of the commission's sexual harassment charges involve male victims, a figure that has been steadily increasing.

"There's this expectation that this doesn't happen to men," she said. "It's almost this boys-will-be-boys attitude of, 'Oh, it's just hazing, it's just teasing, you can't take it seriously.' "

Cheesecake Factory has "historically done a good job of creating a friendly work environment," said Brian Moore, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities Inc. in Los Angeles. "They have very good employment practices and are certainly one of the best operators in the industry, so I find this very surprising."

Fitzpatrick, who now works for Costco, said he was embarrassed by the situation and became depressed, eventually leaving his job after nearly a year of harassment.

"As a male, it's hard to talk to another male about being touched in that way by men," he said. "It's been very difficult trusting other male employees."

Albert Miller, another alleged victim, said he was afraid to come forward at first because "I felt like I would be laughed at."

"It's just different when it happens to a guy," Miller, 23, said. "There's always the fear that they're going to question your manhood."


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