Former Panda Express worker sues, says she was forced to strip ‘almost naked’ at a seminar
A 23-year-old woman is suing Panda Express for sexual battery and emotional distress, claiming she was compelled to strip “almost naked” and engage in other bizarre activities during a company-sanctioned workshop.
Jennifer Spargifiore said she was told that a four-day self-improvement program with Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy was her only ticket to promotion at the Chinese fast-food chain, according to a lawsuit filed in L.A. Superior Court late last month.
Alive Seminars is also a defendant in the lawsuit.
At the time, Spargifiore was working as a cashier at a Santa Clarita location of the chain, which is headquartered in Rosemead. She spent several hundred dollars to attend the workshop, according to her attorney, Oscar Ramirez.
According to the recent lawsuit, the seminar held by Alive Seminars in 2019 “quickly devolved into psychological abuse,” with instructors yelling and belittling attendees.
Cellphone use was prohibited, there was no clock in the room, and the doors and windows were covered with black cloth during the seminar in Pico Rivera, the lawsuit says.
One activity required participants to pretend they were on a sinking ship, where only four would survive.
On July 13, the seminar’s third day, Spargifiore was made to strip down to her underwear in front of strangers and co-workers as part of what was billed as a trust-building exercise, the suit states.
She was later told to “hug it out” with another male participant, who allegedly broke down in tears when he could not succeed in the main aspect of the exercise: taking turns yelling about “their inner struggles until everyone else in the group ‘believed’ them,” the lawsuit said.
By that afternoon, Spargifiore had had enough and called her mother to pick her up, according to her attorney, Ramirez.
She subsequently left the company, he said, and “is still recovering from what happened.”
Ramirez said he would ask a jury for $5 million to compensate his client for lost wages, as well as the sexual and emotional trauma she suffered.
“We believe that a clear message needs to be sent to Panda’s owner,” he said.
Ramirez described the seminar as “really traumatic,” with people vomiting “left and right.”
“That’s the kind of thing that happened because of tremendous psychological pressure,” he added.
Panda Restaurant Group, the chain’s parent company, said in a statement it was taking the allegations “very seriously” and conducting an investigation.
“We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us,” the statement said. “We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect.”
The company said it had no ownership stake in Alive Seminars and had never required employees to participate in the workshops or used them as an ultimatum for promotion.
Alive Seminars did not immediately return a request for comment.
Spargifiore is also the sole named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Panda Restaurant Group, filed in December 2019.
Kitty Szeto, a plaintiffs’ attorney in the class action, said the Alive seminars were required to advance in the company.
“You had to do the training and basically, if you survived it, you would be considered for a promotion,” she said.
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