CHICAGO — Four former dancers are suing a prominent Chicago strip club, saying management routinely allowed customers to assault them through biting, unwanted touching, exposing their genitals and choking.
Rick’s Cabaret, 1531 N. Kingsbury St., fostered a hostile work environment where “customers routinely committed egregious assaults and batteries on female dancers” in view of management and bouncers who often did nothing, according to the lawsuit, for which the plaintiffs want class-action status.
The lawsuit alleges the club purposefully misclassified the dancers as independent contractors so it could skirt federal and state laws on fair compensation and discrimination.
The suit comes from Stephanie Corral, Nicole Potenzo, Lisa Waddel and Stephanie Hansen, formers dancers at Rick’s.
Rick’s Cabaret, formally known as VIP’s Gentlemen’s Club, was sold in 2018 to RCI Hospitality Holdings and is managed by Pooh Bah Enterprises. Both companies are named as defendants in the lawsuit along with Eric Langan, CEO of Hospitality Holdings, and several members of Rick’s upper management.
“The claims are all false. We do not tolerate any type of discrimination or misconduct,” a representative for Pooh Bah Enterprises said in a statement.
Rick’s is a seminude strip club with a liquor license, meaning the dancers must apply nipple coverings, according to the city’s liquor ordinance. There are four licensed strip clubs in the city.
The lawsuit states management “sometimes told dancers that they are not allowed to engage in inappropriate physical contact with the customers; but as a practice the Club does not tell customers that they cannot touch the dancers.”
This led to frequent unwanted harassment by customers, including unwanted touching and groping in private VIP rooms, the stage and open areas inside the club, according the lawsuit.
In one incident, a customer in a VIP room tried to pull Potenzo’s underwear to the side to penetrate her with his fingers, according to the lawsuit. After Potenzo told the customer to stop, the customer bit her neck and shoulder hard, according to the suit.
Potenzo reported the attack to two managers at the club, but the attack was “shrugged off,” according to the lawsuit. The customer was allowed to stay at the club, according to the lawsuit.
In another incident, a customer pulled our his genitals while Waddell’s back was to him, according to the lawsuit.
Waddell told the customer, “Put it away, we don’t do that here,” according to the lawsuit. After reporting the incident to management, the customer was allowed to stay in the club, and Waddell was fired shortly afterwards, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit describes other instances of customers allegedly physically or sexually attacking dancers and managers not responding.
Dancers who walked out of a VIP session after an assault were not paid for the dance, according to the lawsuit.
“Plaintiffs suffered severe physical, psychological and emotional harm as a result of above-described environment and repeated attacks, assaults and batteries,” according to the lawsuit.
The suit also says the company intentionally misclassified dancers as independent contractors, even though the club micromanaged them with a strict set of rules.
The rules dictated the dancers’ conduct, the fees they could charge, where and when they performed and more, according to the lawsuit. Some of the rules included requirements for when dancers had to take off their tops during a performance and how they were allowed to collect their money at the end of a shift, according to the lawsuit.
In 2014, a judge awarded a $10 million partial summary judgment in a class-action lawsuit brought against a Rick’s Cabaret in New York. Dancers there argued the company cheated them out of wages by claiming they were independent contractors instead of hourly employees.
A federal judge agreed and sided with the dancers. In 2015, the company reached a $15 million settlement that’s estimated to be paid out to upwards of 2,000 dancers.
In Chicago, the dancers are alleging the same mistreatment and citing the previous New York case as precedent.
The former dancers also said in the suit the company violated federal age discrimination laws by discriminating against older dancers.
Waddell and Corral, both older than 40, said the club found a way to fire them and others to hire younger dancers, according to the lawsuit.
Corral was fired in April because her bikini bottoms “provided insufficient coverage,” yet she had worn them to perform before and others wore “bottoms with similar or less coverage,” according to the lawsuit.
Waddell said she was fired because she reported the customer who exposed himself to her, according to the lawsuit.
“They are and were qualified dancers and through the time of their terminations, they continued to receive favorable feedback from Defendants’ customers. … Ms. Corral and Ms. Waddell’s terminations were a pretext for age discrimination. They were fired because of their age,” according to the lawsuit.
Other “similarly situated” older dancers were also fired for simply for their age, according to the lawsuit.
“Defendants could and did terminate dancers for failure to adhere to the Club’s rules and policies, and for gaining weight or growing old,” the lawsuit states.
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