Are Restaurants Liable For Sexual Harassment of their Servers?

Posted by Sessions & Kimball |

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue and can happen to anyone. It’s especially complicated when it comes from customers, because employees may not know their legal rights or how to respond to the situation. While it’s important to stay calm and collected, you should always consult with a lawyer as soon as possible so that you can understand your legal options and protect your rights.

How Federal Courts Have Ruled on Employer Liability in Cases of Customer Sexual Harassment 

Most federal courts have ruled that employers can be held liable for customer sexual harassment when they are aware or should be aware it is happening and fail to take action (as in Lockard v. Pizza Hut). 

The legal standard for determining if an employer should have been aware of such behavior varies from case to case and depends on circumstances such as how long the harassment has been going on, whether management was informed about it, how often it occurred, and more.

The Facts of Lockard v. Pizza Hut 

In 1999, a female waitress at an Ohio Pizza Hut restaurant was subjected to sexual harassment by two customers while she worked her shift. Despite informing her supervisor of the incident, he told her to “waitress” and continued serving them food and drinks. She eventually filed a sexual harassment suit against Pizza Hut.

The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of Ohio where it was decided that Pizza Hut was liable for their failure to protect their employee from such an abusive situation as they had both means and authority to do so.

Under federal law, it’s clear that an employer can be held liable for a patron’s act of sexually harassing their servers if the know or should have known about it but fail take corrective action immediately. In other words, employers must act swiftly when there is evidence of customer sexual harassment occurring in order to avoid potential liability issues down the road.  

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) And Sexual Harassment

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), on the other hand, does not make employers liable for sexual harassment of employees committed by clients or customers in most cases.

California courts have found that employers are generally not liable for sexual harassment from customers or clients, as neither the statutory language nor the legislative history provide substantial enough evidence to support such a holding.

Should You Report Customer Sexual Harassment?

If you believe that you are being subjected to customer sexual harassment in the workplace, then it’s important that you report it as soon as possible. Reporting the incident will not only help ensure your safety but also provide evidence of the incident should your employer fail to take appropriate action. 

Make sure you document everything related to the incident including date and time of occurrence, details of what happened (including any witnesses), and how you responded to protect yourself from potential retaliatory action from your employer.

How Can You Hold Your Employer Liable For Customer Sexual Harassment?  

When a restaurant employee experiences customer sexual harassment in the workplace, employers likely have a legal responsibility to investigate and respond appropriately by ensuring a safe work environment free from discrimination and/or retaliation. If they fail to do so, then they can be held liable for any damages resulting from their failure. 

The first step in holding an employer accountable is filing a complaint with either internal HR personnel or with a government agency such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

Additionally, you should consider consulting with an experienced sexual harassment attorney who specializes in employment law and civil rights cases.

If you need help, don’t hesitate to contact us today to schedule a free consultation.