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Former Route 9 Diner settles sexual harassment lawsuit

  • The front side of the former Route 9 Diner is seen in 2014. File photo/Yoshitaka Hamada



For The Recorder
Friday, March 18, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Former owners and managers of the Route 9 Diner in Hadley will pay up to a $200,000 penalty for a decade-long pattern of sexual harassment of female employees, with a portion of this money serving as compensation for 10 victims who suffered physical harm, emotional distress and loss of tips and wages.

Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement issued Friday afternoon that the behavior, which violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws, created “an unbearable and hostile work environment.”

“Our office will not tolerate anyone being sexually harassed in the workplace, and we will continue to hold accountable businesses that allow these kinds of discriminatory practices to occur,” Healey said.

The consent judgment requires former owners Christopher Karabetsos and Argiris Sideris, both of Belchertown, and former managers Dimitrios Demos, of Lowell, and Steven Kwak, of Montague, to pay a combined $112,000 to resolve allegations that they failed to protect waitresses from harassment, even though they knew the behavior was taking place and could have stopped it.

Karabetsos and Sideris must each pay $10,000 within 60 days, and then an additional $37,500 in semi-annual installments beginning in March 2017. Demos and Kwak must each pay $4,000 within 60 days, and then an additional $4,500 in 10 equal semi-annual installments beginning in March 2017.

The remaining $88,000 is suspended pending the defendants’ compliance with other terms of the agreement.

Most of the settlement money will be used to compensate female employees of the diner, many of whom were subject to pervasive sexual harassment and discrimination during their employment at the diner, according to the judgment.

This “restitution and remedy” money will be provided former waitresses “in specific amounts to be determined by the attorney general in her sole discretion.”

The consent judgment also resolves a related case brought by a former waitress, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which assisted the attorney general’s office during the investigation and settlement of the case.

“I congratulate the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office for zealous representation,” said William Newman, director of the western Massachusetts office of the ACLU.

Newman said the high price being paid will give others knowledge that such behavior is unacceptable at Massachusetts businesses.

“This has an important precedential effect, the message this judgment and what happened to this business sends to other businesses that would discriminate on the basis of gender and sexual harassment,” Newman said.

He also observes there were additional consequences for the diner’s owners not being forthcoming and truthful about the situation their female employees were experiencing.

“Their initial denials were completely untrue,” Newman said. “That will cost them dearly.”

The final judgment by consent was signed in Hampshire Superior Court by Judge Mary Lou Rup.

“I believe the terms are appropriate,” Rup said.

If any of these terms are violated, Rup said the former owners and managers could be brought to court on charges of contempt.

Present in the courtroom were Kwak and Demos, Springfield attorney David Crevier, representing Karabetsos and Sideris, and Genevieve Nadeau, deputy division chief of the attorney general’s civil rights division.

All declined to be interviewed about the case.

For Devin Cowley, who worked at the diner in 2014 and was subject to harassment, the settlement of the case marks an important stand by the state on behalf of workers at restaurants.

“To me, this entire thing is about defending the image of the industry,” said Cowley, who works at a restaurant in New York City.

Cowley explained that if any workers experienced similar behavior at her restaurant, it would be reported and handled immediately.

“It was poor behavior on the behalf of the people who were supposed to protect us,” Cowley said. “The people who were supposed to protect us didn’t.”

In the complaint, the attorney general’s office stated that as early as 2004 “female employees of the diner, primarily waitresses, were regularly subject to sexualized commentary, catcalling, whistling and unwanted touching and advances from the cooks.”

Detailed accounts from each of the 10 victims was outlined in the complaint.

“The cooks forced unwanted hugs on waitresses or found other ways to touch them, often in a manner that startled them or caught them off guard,” according to the complaint.

This included tactics such as “jumper cabling,” in which cooks would squeeze the waist of a waitress from behind, “rat tailing,” in which twisted kitchen towels were used to strike waitresses in the rear, watching pornographic videos on cellphones and laptops and inappropriately accosting female workers in the freezer.

Managers also used strategies to disparage the waitresses by giving them nicknames and hurling verbal abuse at them, rated the hostesses based on their looks, and made comments about the weight of one waitress and scars another had on her arms.

”The owners took the position, both explicitly and implicitly, that the cooks’ behavior was to be tolerated because the cooks were hard to replace, while the waitresses were not,” the complaint states.

It continues, “Demos and Kwak regularly referenced a purported stack of resumes kept by the cash register or waved the resumes at the waitresses to remind them that they were easily replaceable.”

The agreement includes stipulations if Karabetsos or Sideris reopen a diner at a different location or open any other food-service establishment in Massachusetts. This includes posting a notice of the consent judgment in a visible location, adopting comprehensive anti-discrimination policies and procedures, establishing internal complaint procedures, providing managers and supervisors training on anti-discrimination laws, and hiring a human resources or equal employment opportunity consultant to monitor compliance with the consent judgment.

The attorney general’s office originally filed a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint against the diner in March 2015.

The diner reopened as Johnny’s Roadside Diner late last year under new ownership.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at:
smerzbach@gazettenet.com.