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The harassment filing is the second lawsuit filed by former employees against the restaurant within a two-month period. (Photo/Reynolds Rogers)

Eight former employees of Last Resort Grill have filed a class action lawsuit against the Athens restaurant and its former general manager Stanley Walker on counts of sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and negligent hiring and retaliation, among other violations, according to a lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia on Oct. 15.

The lawsuit also states co-owners Melissa Clegg and Jamshad Zarnegar were made aware of Walker’s actions on multiple occasions.

The Red & Black interviewed five of the plaintiffs, all of whom spoke of a culture of malicious employment practices, sexual harassment, intimidation, emotional distress, abuse and hostility, as listed in the lawsuit. The culture was not only the result of Walker’s behavior, but extended to other senior management, according to the interviews and the lawsuit.

Seven of the plaintiffs are women and former employees who worked as hosts, servers and bartenders at Last Resort Grill between 2012 and June 2020. The eighth plaintiff is former line cook Kenneth Martinez, who alleges he was terminated for speaking out against the harassment the women experienced, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for injuries caused by the restaurant’s discriminating, harassing and retaliatory conduct, lost income and costs of litigation and attorney’s fees, along with a court declaration stating their rights were violated by both the restaurant and Walker, according to the lawsuit.

At least six plaintiffs sought therapy, hospitalization or prescription medication as a result of their employment at Last Resort, according to the lawsuit and interviews with The Red & Black. The Red & Black spoke with four of the women plaintiffs, all of whom stated the work environment at the restaurant created or worsened mental health issues or dependencies on alcohol, drugs or cigarettes as coping mechanisms.

“They use you and they toss you aside. Whatever abuses, whatever traumas and whatever experiences that you may have gleaned or had during your time there, to hell with all of that,” plaintiff Madison McDearis said in an interview with The Red & Black. “You’re a workhorse. You’re here to generate revenue for us.”

The harassment filing is the second lawsuit filed by former employees against the restaurant within a two-month period. Three of the employees filed a class action lawsuit in late August alleging Clegg and Zarnegar violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by “failing and willfully" refusing to pay minimum wages from 2017 to 2020.

Zarnegar declined to comment. Clegg and Walker did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

Sexual harassment allegations

Walker was hired as the general manager of Last Resort Grill in November 2017. Walker previously served as a general manager at Five & Ten, from where he resigned. According to the lawsuit, Walker resigned in response to allegations of sexual harassment from a woman employee. Hugh Acheson, owner of Five & Ten, told The Red & Black that neither he nor anyone in the restaurant's management team were aware of any sexual harassment complaints against Walker when he worked at Five & Ten.

"We did not terminate him," Acheson said. "He resigned of his own volition."

Walker was hired as the general manager of Last Resort Grill in November 2017. Walker previously served as a general manager at Five & Ten, from where he resigned in response to allegations of sexual harassment from a woman employee, according to the lawsuit.

Six of the plaintiffs recounted multiple instances of sexual harassment by Walker in the lawsuit.

Plaintiff Keela Singleton began experiencing sexual harassment immediately after Walker hired her in January 2018, according to the lawsuit. Walker would regularly approach Singleton from behind and press his genitalia into her, call her “kitten” and make comments about her appearance in a sexually suggestive manner, according to the lawsuit.

Months into her employment, Walker told Singleton she looked “like the kind of girl who has sex with her t-shirt on” when they were secluded in a stock room, according to the lawsuit.

“I cried a little bit, and like my eyes got watery. It was so embarrassing. And I was just so angry and so caught off because what do you say to that?” Singleton said in an interview. “He [Walker] then later tried to say that it was a joke and … I've not heard the punch line yet. I'm still waiting on that.”

The lawsuit states that the Last Resort Grill fostered a “systemic hostile” and “toxic” work environment and that Walker’s actions humiliated, embarrassed and frightened the plaintiffs. The environment was worsened by harassment from other male managers and employees, according to the interviewed plaintiffs.

Walker’s behavior entailed touching the women employees without consent, commenting on their bodies, prying into their personal lives and asking about their sexual preferences and habits, among other instances, according to the lawsuit.

“Over time, Stan became very volatile and was following this code of behavior, this dysfunctional behavior, that was happening with the managers that preceded him,” said plaintiff Allyssa Peace. “He started having these violent outbursts at work, and I was one of the people he would target. It was deeply unsettling and definitely affected my mental health.”

If an employee did not give into Walker’s advances, he would give them less profitable shifts, alter work schedules or sabotage their work environment, among other punishments, according to the lawsuit.

One plaintiff engaged in a brief relationship with Walker after feeling pressure from his repeated requests. Prior to the relationship, Walker offered her $3,000 per month to resign from her job and commit to an intimate relationship with him, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiff said in an interview with The Red & Black that Walker wanted her to be his “kept woman.”

During the relationship, Walker scheduled the plaintiff for more lucrative dinner shifts under his management. When the relationship ended, Walker began to “punish her” — he scheduled her for less lucrative shifts, sabotaged her work by seating all incoming customers in her assigned section at once and ordered other employees not to assist her if she was having difficulty, according to the lawsuit.

The actions taken by Walker to “punish” the plaintiff led to customer dissatisfaction, which was used as a reason for her termination, according to the lawsuit.

Suppression of complaints

According to the lawsuit, Clegg and manager Kim Rein required at least two employees, one of whom was Keela Singleton, to sign what they understood to be non-disclosure agreements after Last Resort Grill was notified about the harassment conducted by Walker.

The agreement for at least one plaintiff, Kenneth Martinez, was signed under the threat of losing his position. Both agreements were signed without the benefit of counsel for the plaintiffs, according to the lawsuit. Singleton said in an interview the restaurant would not return the agreement to her, despite multiple requests from her lawyer.

“That was the first situation I had with Stan, and that was pretty early in me working at Last Resort, and that set the tone for the rest of my experiences there, because it didn’t stop there,” Singleton said in an interview with The Red & Black. “If anything, that was part of an ongoing sexual harassment experience I had my entirety there.”

The lawsuit states the restaurant failed to take “prompt and appropriate remedial action” to prevent or correct further discrimination and harassment and retaliated against employees that made complaints about Walker’s behavior.

“Melissa and [Jamshad] have been both completely uninterested in how their employees are affected. They care solely about how their employees affect the business and how their revenue is affected by their employees,” plaintiff Rachel Mills said in an interview. “It wouldn’t have mattered if 15 people came forward to make a big fuss about it. They weren’t going to take this seriously until it really blew up in their face.”

Plaintiff and former line cook Kenneth Martinez said in an interview he was pressured into filling out a non-disclosure agreement after he informed Clegg and Rein of the sexist behavior and sexual harassment the women experienced. The agreement stated if he didn’t cease and desist talking about the behavior, he would be terminated, Martinez said. He could not afford to lose his job, so he signed the agreement.

The following morning, he asked Rein if he could receive his NDA back, destroyed it and was subsequently terminated from his position, according to the lawsuit. Anyone else who filed a complaint was dealt with punitive discipline, including shifting their schedules to less profitable times or potentially being fired, Martinez said.

“I watched for months this evolve into a terrible situation and then when I couldn’t take it anymore — and I wasn’t even the victim — I went to the owners and this is how I was treated,” Martinez said in an interview. “I can’t imagine how those women felt. I thought that my age and my experience level and my loyalty level would carry some weight with [the owners], but they just wanted me gone. They were completely committed to protecting that guy [Walker].”

Retaliation for complaints

Three plaintiffs said in interviews they believe Walker terminated them for personal reasons, including the plaintiff who was previously in a relationship with him.

Plaintiff Madison McDearis said in an interview she believes Walker targeted her when he arrived at the restaurant because she played a role in the dismissal of the general manager he replaced. McDearis said she had worked at Last Resort for five years and was considered a senior staff member.

Prior to her termination, the lawsuit states that Walker targeted her because she was in a relationship with another plaintiff that Walker was sexually harassing at the time.

McDearis complained to Clegg and Zarnegar about Walker’s sexist behavior toward her and also about Walker sexually harassing the other plaintiff. Clegg and Zarnegar said they could not get involved, according to the lawsuit.

A few months into his employment, Walker fired McDearis after she was 45 minutes late to a shift due to misreading her schedule, according to the lawsuit. McDearis said in an interview that she was labeled a “no call no show,” but said she called the restaurant beforehand to let them know she was on the way. In the same week, Walker did not write up a male employee when he arrived late to work, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit documented at least one example of Walker using his power to manipulate the circumstances of an employee’s termination. Walker terminated Allyssa Peace in September 2019 and proceeded to tell other employees she had resigned, according to the lawsuit.

After terminating Peace due to declining job performance, Walker backtracked and offered her two further weeks of employment to ensure she wasn’t financially unstable when transitioning to a new job, Peace said in an interview.

When Peace asked Walker to verify her termination, he told her she was gaslighting him and she was a “sorry individual looking to mooch off of the Resort” because she had put in her two weeks and had not been fired, Peace said in an interview.

In her time at the Last Resort, Peace’s mental health was greatly impacted by her experiences at the restaurant and Walker’s actions, according to the lawsuit.

“So much abuse was transpiring and you had to deaden yourself to that in order to continue making money there,” Peace said in an interview.

Walker is no longer employed at the restaurant, according to the lawsuit. The interviewed plaintiffs said the mistreatment and harassment, however, was not limited to Walker. The behavior extended to the owners and senior management, which was composed of both men and women.

According an U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge of discrimination complaint included in the lawsuit, at least one of the plaintiffs experienced harassment from other male co-workers and managers, including Walker.

“When there wasn’t a general manager there sexually harassing everybody, Jamshad was certainly there doing some aspect of something,” McDearis said in an interview.

Zarnegar, who was involved in the day to day running of the restaurant, had an intimidating presence, according to three plaintiffs. Zarnegar would often tease employees at pre-shift meetings about who among them would cry during the dinner shift, said plaintiff Rachel Mills in an interview.

In addition to the environment and suppression, the lawsuit also mentions at least one instance where the Last Resort Grill blocked an employee’s unemployment claim as a form of retaliation.

Due to her concerns about the restaurant’s safety protocols during the pandemic, Keela Singleton resigned in June 2020. The lawsuit states Singleton was told the restaurant would support her unemployment claim, but after filing her charge of discrimination, the restaurant denied her claim.

“There was a lot of gaslighting that would go on on behalf of the management team, to the point where you would lose sight of the fact that we were just serving food,” plaintiff Madison McDearis said in an interview. “There were servers who would have panic attacks, there were multiple instances where Jamshad would yell at a server face to face with spit flying into their face in the middle of a crowded dining room. It was made to feel very high stakes. Very life or death.”

The senior management once brought in a lawyer to discuss sexual harassment with the employees, three of the plaintiffs said in interviews. The general takeaway was that it was hard to sue the restaurant, plaintiff Keela Singleton said in an interview.

“The same people who were complacent in the sexual harassment were also complacent in the wage theft,” Singleton said in reference to the separate suit filed in August. “It’s not like this wasn’t happening, it was pretty obvious. Those managers could’ve looked around at any point and said, ‘I’m participating in something that’s illegal.’ And they didn’t.”

Both parties are entering a mediation stage next week for the wage-related lawsuit filed in August, said Peter Steckel, the plaintiffs’ attorney.