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Chipotle settles suit alleging male manager sexually harassed

A young male manager at a Chipotle restaurant in San Jose suffered sexual harassment from a female supervisor who groped him, propositioned him, simulated sex acts using vegetables and hit him in the head with a pan, a just-settled lawsuit filed by the federal government alleged.

Austin Melton started working as a service manager for the fast-casual Mexican restaurant chain in 2012 in Cupertino, and was transferred to the North Capitol Avenue location, where the alleged harassment by the general manager began in April 2015, according to the civil-rights suit from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“This was my first job after high school, and it was hard to speak up about the harassment to management and then to the EEOC,” Melton said in a commission news release issued Tuesday. “But it was the right thing to do.”

According to the suit, “The general manager slapped, groped, and grabbed Mr. Melton’s buttocks and groin area numerous times.” The supervisor also told Melton, who was 22 at the time, ‘I’ll pay for sex,’ ‘I want to watch you have sex with your girlfriend,” the suit claimed.

Chipotle did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, but agreed to pay Melton $95,000 and impose a sweeping array of changes to policies, procedures and training to prevent sexual harassment in its workplaces, according to the settlement order approved Monday in San Jose U.S. District Court.

In a March 2018 court filing, the company denied the suit’s claims of sexual harassment, violence and retaliation. Chipotle Mexican Grill did not immediately respond to a request from this news organization for comment on the lawsuit’s claims.

The suit claimed Melton’s supervisor often asked about his sex life and those of other employees, and made sexual gestures. “She used vegetables to simulate sex acts,” the suit alleged.

The general manager sent Instagram messages of herself in her underwear to Melton and other workers, and “subjected all staff to a sex ‘score board’ which she posted in her office,” the suit alleged, detailing whether employees had  sex the night before.

The female supervisor “also was prone to violence,” the suit alleged. “On one occasion, she hit Mr. Melton over the head with a pan. Mr. Melton also saw the general manager throw kitchen items at crew members, slap crew members on the back of the head, and punch the wall until her hands bled.”

In September 2015, Melton and a co-worker complained to the general manager’s supervisor — the “team leader” — but the harassment continued, the suit claimed. Melton complained again to the team leader the following month, and the leader called the general manager into a meeting that included Melton, who expressed his grievances, according to the suit, filed in 2017.

“The general manager became hostile and started screaming at Mr. Melton,” the suit alleged. “Nevertheless, the harassing behavior persisted: The general manager continued to post the sex scoreboard and continued to make sexual comments.”

After that meeting, employees and managers retaliated against Melton, with managers telling employees not to talk to him, the suit claimed.

“In October 2015, employees locked Mr. Melton in a walk-in freezer,” the suit alleged. “He pounded on the door and yelled for someone to open the door. Nobody responded. Mr. Melton escaped through an emergency exit. When he re-entered the restaurant, he discovered that a steel rod had been lodged in a hole in the door handle to prevent him from opening the door.”

Commission lawyer James Baker noted in the news release that only about 16 percent of sexual harassment charges filed with the agency are brought by males. “Federal laws protect workers from sexual harassment and sexual abuse, regardless of their gender,” Baker said.

“Austin was simply trying to do his job, as he worked to support himself and his girlfriend,” Baker said. “He faced conditions that no employee should have to accept in exchange for a paycheck.”

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