Restaurant responds to lawsuit

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit filed in federal court last Monday that New Pine Ridge Restaurant at 300 Pine Ridge Ave., in Merrill violated federal law by allowing female employees to be sexually harassed and not acting to stop it.

This Tuesday, Kim Alimi, owner of the restaurant and his employees held a press conference to deny the charges set forth in the lawsuit, especially that Alimi did nothing to stop the alleged harassment or that he even knew about it.

Since the news of the lawsuit broke, Alimi said that business at his establishment has dropped off “significantly.”

According to John Rowe, director of EEOC’s Chicago District, which includes Wisconsin, the agency’s investigation revealed that one of the restaurant’s cooks, Shahi N. Selmani, created a sexually hostile work environment when he repeatedly made crude remarks to waitresses and grabbed their breasts. The EEOC charged that despite complaints from the waitresses, the restaurant’s owner, Alimi, took no action to stop Selmani’s harassment, and that some of the women were fired in retaliation for complaining about the sexually hostile work environment.

Selmani did not stop working for the restaurant until months after the Lincoln County District Attorney began an investigation which led to Selmani pleading no contest on Dec. 9, 2010, to having committed Class A misdemeanor battery against three waitresses. Three other misdemeanors – fourth-degree sexual assault, bail jumping and disorderly conduct – were dismissed but “read into” the record of Selmani’s conviction.

On July 7, 2011, in a similar case in Forest County, Selmani pled no contest to two more counts of Class A misdemeanor battery and, among other things, was ordered to “participate [in] and complete a sex offender treatment program … ”

Alimi’s attorney, Peter Bear, who conducted the press conference Tuesday at the restaurant said that the entire lawsuit was without merit.

“We object to all of it, but especially the charge that there is an ongoing environment where sexual harassment continues to exist,” Bear said. “That is not the case.”

Bear said that at the time Alimi became aware of the alleged harassment taking place, he hired a private investigator to look into the matter. The investigator could not prove that the allegations were true at that time. He was eventually fired for other reasons.

“He was gone (fired) before the conviction,” Bear said.

Four waitresses who have worked for Alimi since the restaurant opened three years ago were also on hand to talk to reporters. Bear said their remarks were in no way rehearsed ahead of time.

“Why did I do that? Because I am sure that there is no sexual harassment going on here,” Bear said.

Bear said that the business has dropped off significantly since the news of the lawsuit broke, which only contained one side of the story. It was decided that the press conference was needed to get Alimi’s side of the story out.

“This man, who is trying to live the American Dream, is an immigrant,” Bear said. “He has come here and has worked hard to make this restaurant a success. To have these charges risk destroying all he has worked for, and jeopardize the jobs of everyone who works here is unfair. This lawsuit is nonsense and it’s malicious.”

He said because the suit charges that Alimi did nothing to correct the situation, it is also untrue.

“Basically what they are saying is he is running a criminal enterprise here. That is patently malicious and untrue,” Bear said.

He said that the three people they are aware of in the class of the lawsuit were not fired for filing their complaints. Alimi said that they simply did not return to work. Since they are only aware of those three people, they cannot refute any other of the EEOC’s charges in the suit.

While the restaurant already had a closed circuit camera system in place at the time of the alleged incident, Bear said that has been expanded so that all areas of the property, including the gas station and outside the building, is covered by a camera.

“It leaves no room for doubt, this shows that he took corrective action,” Bear said. “Yet they are alleging he did not take any action whatsoever.”

Beverly Parr, who is the floor manager for the New Pine Ridge, said she wasn’t aware of any problems until Alimi had an “intense” meeting with Selmani once the charges had come out. She said she had not been aware of any sexual harassment then or since the isolated incident.

“I’m comfortable working here,” Parr said. “I would not be working here if the conditions they say are here actually existed.”

She said since the news of the lawsuit only contained the federal government’s allegations, business has dropped off.

“We got rid of the bad egg and that happened two years ago,” Parr said. “It is now jeopardizing our jobs. We want the people of Merrill to know the charges are not true. We want your business.”

Diane Wallen, who has worked for Alimi in various area restaurants for more than 20 years, also defended her boss.

“He is the most honest man I know,” Wallen said. “I know if something like this was happening here, he would look into it and take action.”

Bear said that Jeff Scott Olson is handling the case in federal court because of his experience in trials in that venue. He is preparing a response to the charges the EEOC made in their filing.

Sexual harassment and retaliation for complaining about it violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The agency seeks lost wages and compensatory and punitive damages for a class of female employees, in addition to an order barring future discrimination, and other relief. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin in Madison.

The EEOC’s Chicago District Office is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

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