California-based restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory has agreed to pay $345,000 to settle a federal lawsuit that charged the company allowed male employees to be sexually harassed by other male workers at the company's Chandler Fashion Center store.
The settlement was announced Tuesday by the Phoenix office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
According to the civil suit filed in July 2008 in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, six male employees were subjected to repeated sexual harassment by a group of male kitchen staffers at the 3111 W. Chandler Blvd. location. The EEOC charged that restaurant managers knew about and tolerated the incidents.
The company denied the allegations.
"We have consistently maintained that these claims have no merit," said Sidney Greathouse, vice president of legal services, in a written statement. "Actions of this nature are simply not tolerated by us and, if they ever were to occur, would be promptly investigated and appropriately handled."
Greathouse said the company agreed to the consent decree "to avoid any further disruptions and additional expenses of litigation for a matter than has lingered on for more than three years."
He added the decree "makes it very clear that the company ... asserts that it complies with all applicable employment laws, including those pertaining to unlawful harassment. Moreover, the consent decree specifies that there has been no finding of liability against the company."
The EEOC responded that evidence "overwhelmingly" showed that the men suffered sexually abusive behavior including the abusers touching the alleged victims' genitals, making sexually charged remarks, grinding their genitals against them and forcing alleged victims into repeated episodes of simulated rape.
Many of the incidents took place in walk-in refrigerators where individual victims were dragged by several assailants, said EEOC attorney Diana Chen.
At least one manager witnessed the abuse but did not act, she said. Other managers were told of the alleged abuse by victims but never attempted to stop it, she said.
Eventually one of the victims called the police, but the Chandler Police Department decided not to seek a criminal complaint, Chen said. The victims then appealed to the EEOC, she said.
In addition to interviewing the six alleged victims, EEOC investigators spoke with witnesses who confirmed what had happened, said Regional Attorney Mary Jo O'Neill.
The alleged acts violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she said.
"The evidence was clear, and everyone knew about it," O'Neill said. "Behind the lavish decor that the company boasts on its Web site was a horribly dysfunctional workplace where male workers lived in fear."
In addition to the money for the six victims, the consent decree calls for the company to train employees about sexual harassment and to designate an ombudsman to field and address sexual harassment complaints, the EEOC said.
About 16 percent of sexual harassment cases investigated by the EEOC involve male victims, the agency said.