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H.B. vegan restaurant managers harassed female workers and spied on women’s restroom, according to lawsuit by former employees

Vegan Nirvana in Huntington Beach.
Four former employees of Vegan Nirvana in Huntington Beach filed a lawsuit alleging harassment, retaliation and other offenses.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Former employees have filed a lawsuit against a Huntington Beach vegan restaurant, alleging harassment, retaliation and other offenses, including using a camera to spy on occupants of the women’s restroom.

The four women who filed the complaint were hired at Vegan Nirvana at 7862 Warner Ave. between March and December 2017, according to documents filed June 7 in Orange County Superior Court. By August last year, all four had quit due to a hostile work environment, court papers said.

Vegan Nirvana owner Don Nguyen did not return messages seeking comment.

The suit accuses two night managers of making sexual jokes and innuendos while working in the kitchen.

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According to the complaint, one of the managers said “Do you want to strip?” in the presence of one of the women while preparing an order containing faux chicken strips.

A different plaintiff who was 16 when she began working at the restaurant alleges a manager commented that “she’s going to get me going to prison for underage reasons” and then asked another manager, “When does she turn 18?”

It was unclear Thursday whether the two night managers still work at the restaurant.

The plaintiffs also claim they were touched inappropriately on the neck, waist, buttocks, legs and back.

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The complaint additionally alleges that some managers told plaintiffs they were being considered for promotion to management positions at a new location or to a “top chef” assignment as incentive not to complain about workplace issues, though no new locations were planned, and that promised pay raises for several employees were withheld for up to two months, in one case as retaliation for filing complaints about management behavior. Other alleged retaliatory actions included scheduling an employee for up to three consecutive days of double shifts, according to court documents.

One plaintiff quit, in part, because one night manager repeatedly invited her to parties outside of work and offered to supply her with cocaine in exchange for sex, the complaint said.

In July, an employee discovered that a device resembling a wall charger that was plugged into an outlet by the sink in the women’s restroom was actually a “spy camera,” the complaint said. The device was placed at waist level and “pointed directly at the toilet,” according to the lawsuit. The restroom also served as the female employees’ locker room, the complaint said.

Court documents allege the camera captured people “fully and partially naked, toileting and engaged in other acts while believing they were in a private space.”

The device had shown up in the restroom periodically since at least August 2017, typically during shifts when the two accused night managers worked, according to the complaint. Employees “reasonably believed it was an innocuous USB charger left in the women’s restroom by an unknown employee or customer,” the complaint said. One of the night managers allegedly told employees that a “Vegan Nirvana ghost” was responsible for the device.

When the employee discovered that the device was a camera, she reported it to the two night managers, according to the lawsuit. One manager pulled the device from the wall, “tinkered with it” and walked outside before telling employees that he had found no memory card and thus there was no reason to report the camera to police, the complaint said.

An employee reported the incident to the Huntington Beach Police Department, which did an investigation, police said Tuesday.

However, no recorded materials associated with the camera were found and the investigation was dropped, said Jerold Friedman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

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The four former employees are suing Vegan Nirvana for economic damages of no less than $1 million each, plus general damages and penalties for medical expenses, pain and suffering, emotional distress, humiliation, loss of income, “reputational injuries” and more, the complaint said.

A court hearing in the case has not yet been set.

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