Cindy Rueda, an ex-chef of entertainment hip-hop mogul Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, has sued the mogul and a few of his companies, among other defendants, in the Superior Court of California in Los Angeles, Central District, for sexual harassment, retaliation, and failure to pay overtime wages, among other claims.
In a twenty-six-page complaint filed on May 8, 2017, Rueda alleges eleven causes of action including the aforementioned claims. Rueda claims that she began working at the home of Combs in January of 2015. During this time she worked on weekends from 9:00 am to midnight or 2: 00 am. She also claims she worked almost every Saturday and Sunday and was paid a flat rate of $150 per day. On or about September 27, 2015, Rueda claims Combs offered and Rueda accepted a full-time position to work as an exempt employee chef at his California residence. This time, she was required to report to work daily at 9:00 am and to be available to work until midnight or 2:30 am depending on the activities of and events hosted by Combs. She was also required to travel with Combs when his work required him to appear at events outside of Los Angeles, California, and work until 2:30 am with no additional income.
She claims she was subjected to inappropriate conduct and harassing confrontations from Combs and his guests while she worked. She claims she was regularly summoned by Combs to “prepare and serve entrees and appetizers to him and his guests while Combs and/or his guests were engaged in or immediately following sexual activity.” On several occasions, she was summoned by Combs to serve him a “post-coital meal,” and as she entered the room, “(Combs) was naked and made comments about his body to (her) and ultimately asked the visibly uncomfortable (Rueda) if she was attracted to or liked his naked body.”
Rueda also claims that Comb’s house guests, while nude, on several occasions, approached her in the kitchen while she was preparing a meal and asked that she admire their genitals. She claims on numerous occasions she complained to Stacy Friend, the estate director for Combs, but all of her complaints went unanswered. Instead, she was “lured” into a situation where she was “accused of theft and ultimately terminated.” She is suing for damages, including punitive damages.
Combs, needless to say, has responded and denied all allegations. He claims she stole from him that is why he fired her. “This is a frivolous lawsuit by a disgruntled ex-employee who was fired for a cause,” said a Combs’s representative in a statement to the press.
While the parties sort out their issues in court, it is important to highlight a few things from our viewpoint for employers reading this.
First, it is not uncommon, even in the 21st century, to hear of claims of sexual harassment and discrimination in corporate America. The claims get more insidious when we delve into the realm of the fashion and entertainment industries. For example, in recent times, Bill O’Reilly, one of the top-rated host in cable news, was forced out of Fox News after the disclosure of a series of sexual harassment allegations against him and an internal investigation that revealed even more. There are also numerous shocking stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault crimes by fashion and entertainment figures that have resulted in an arrest, trial, and conviction of these employer personalities.
Therefore, it is important that employers pay particular attention to reviewing and revisiting sexual harassment and discrimination conduct in the workplace to ensure they are not occurring.
Finally, here are some basic things to note aabout sexual harassment in the workplace that stem from the key issues in the lawsuit above:
- Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts and most state laws, it is illegal to discriminate against another person based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
- California generally offers, even more, protection, in certain instances, than the federal law.
- Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) which is the primary tool in California that protects employees from discrimination, retaliation and harassment in employment, sexual harassment is a “verbal, physical or sexual behavior directed at an individual because of his or her gender.” See Cal. Govt. Code section 12900. In the Rueda v. Combs case, Rueda’s allegations are good examples of sexual harassment conduct that is prohibited in the workplace.
- Under California and federal law, there are two categories of sexual harassment: a) quid pro quo and b) hostile work environment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment consists of any “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Hostile work environment, on the other hand, need not include allegations of sexual advances. What is required is that the “harassment is sufficiently pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive work environment.”
- As an employer, you cannot and should not fire someone for complaining about sexual harassment and asking you to resolve the issue. That is retaliation and can and will get you into legal trouble.
- As an employer, you can be liable for failing to correct a hostile work environment created by a supervisor. Accordingly, it is a great idea to have a clear sexual harassment policy that addresses harassment including by non-employees, and retaliation. You should also model, in action, a zero tolerance for harassment in your work environment.Your employees should know that you do not tolerate sexual harassment, and if it should occur, there are systems in place to immediately investigate, address and put a stop to the harassment. These preventive acts will come in handy as an affirmative defense, depending on the circumstances, and should an employee ever sue for harassment.
- Finally, as to Rueda’s claim alleging that Combs failed to pay her overtime wages, here is what you should know. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law, makes it mandatory that an employer pay certain types of employees a minimum wage, at the very least, and overtime pay (time and a half) if such employees work more than 40 hours a week. These employees are known as non-exempt employees. Blue collar employees who use mostly physical skill/labor and energy such as Rueda are typically always non-exempt employees. However, if they are highly paid employees, they could be exempted under the law. However, if you have a blue collar employee that works at $150 a day from 9:00 am to 2:00 am as is alleged by Rueda, then you should not be classifying such employee as an exempt employee.
Employers, it is important that you must comply with the federal and state labor and employment laws to avoid running into legal trouble. Fashion and entertainment employers, in particular, should avoid thinking the often informal settings where creativity occurs, exempts them from obeying the law.
Read the full complaint here.
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