A fast-food chain in California is being sued by a former employee who said that a seminar she was forced to attend as part of the path to any possible promotion included humiliation and also an exercise where she was forced to take off all but her underwear.
Jennifer Spargifiore, 23, is suing the Chinese food chain Panda Express for sexual battery and emotional distress. She is also suing Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, which offered the seminar she was required to attend, according to the Los Angeles Times.
At the time of the 2019 seminar she attended, Spargifiore worked as a cashier at a Santa Clarita location and spent several hundred dollars to attend the workshop, according to Oscar Ramirez, her attorney.
The complaint paints a gruesome picture of the seminar.
“From the beginning, the Panda-sponsored Alive seminar attended by Ms. Spargifiore was bizarre and quickly devolved into psychological abuse,” the lawsuit alleges.
“At the start, the attendees were told to sit down and not talk, and were left in eerie isolation for a full hour before a man stormed in, yelling in Spanish and berating the attendees for sitting there and doing nothing when that is exactly what they had been instructed to do. The man, an Alive Seminars employee, loudly proclaimed that the attendees are ‘nothing’ and ‘don’t matter,’ rounding on some people to berate them individually, spittle flying. The overall effect was that of a particularly nasty drill sergeant yelling into Ms. Spargifiore’s face,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit claimed that “the goal of the seminar staff was to isolate and intimidate Ms. Spargifiore and the other attendees. The attendees were prohibited from using their cell phones; there was no clock in the room; the doors and windows were all covered with black cloth. The atmosphere resembled less a self-improvement seminar than a site for off-the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects.”
The lawsuit cited a specific exercise that allegedly took place on July 13, 2019.
“Plaintiff showed up to find a new ‘exercise’ wherein she was forced to strip down to her underwear under the guise of ‘trust-building,'” the suit said.
“Plaintiff – stripped almost naked in front of strangers and co-workers – was extremely uncomfortable but pressed on because she knew it was her only chance at a promotion. Plaintiff felt extremely uncomfortable at the situation but compelled to continue because her prospects for advancement at Panda Express depended on completion of the seminar.
“Meanwhile, Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing,” the lawsuit said.
“The exercise culminated when Plaintiff, along with other participants, had to take turns standing up to yell about their inner struggles until everyone else in the group ‘believed’ them. The last male participant had some difficulty ‘convincing’ the others and as a result, broke down in tears. Plaintiff was told to stand up and go to the middle of the room with the male participant, where they were forced to ‘hug it out’ wearing nothing but their underwear. Plaintiff was humiliated but did as she was told,” the complaint said.
The complaint said that day’s activities “more and more resembled a cult initiation ritual as time went on.”
During one exercise, staff were “recording Plaintiff in her state of undress,” according to the complaint, which said that during the afternoon session that day, Spargifiore left the seminar on a pretext and did not return.
“The entire time the seminar was being conducted, Plaintiff and the other attendees were confined in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. If Plaintiff wanted to use the restroom, someone from the Alive Seminars staff would stand outside the restroom door. When another participant ran into the restroom to throw up, Alive Seminars staff ran after her. Another male participant was only given a small trash can to throw up in and was forced to do it in front of all the other attendees,” the complaint alleged.
The complaint sums up what it says Spargifiore underwent.
“Plaintiff went into the July Seminar hopeful and optimistic about her future at Panda Express. She left it three days later scarred and downtrodden. Panda Express told her to attend the Alive Seminar and made it clear that any promotion depended on it. Panda Express, however, did not care about Plaintiff’s experience at Alive Seminars or that she had been humiliated in front of her co-workers,” the complaint said.
“Her chances of promotion were destroyed. She had been forced to strip in-front of her co-workers. Plaintiff’s working conditions had become intolerable and Panda Express had no interest in addressing the situation. As a result, Plaintiff was constructively terminated from her position with Panda Express in July 2019.”
Ramirez said will seek $5 million in damages.
“We believe that a clear message needs to be sent to Panda’s owner,” he said. Panda Restaurant Group told the LA Times that it took the claims “very seriously” and was conducting an investigation.
“We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us,” the statement said. “We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect.”
The company also said in its statement that it did not require the seminar for promotion.
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