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Woman sues NYC steakhouse claiming rampant sexual harassment

Brenna Gonzalez claims she was targeted by male colleagues and customers at Smith & Wollensky after she began working there in 2018.
Smith & Wollensky steakhouse
Smith & Wollensky steakhouse in New York.Stephen Hilger / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A young woman was groped three times a day and subjected to other "unwanted, disgusting and offensive" sexual harassment while working at the venerable New York City steakhouse Smith & Wollensky, the former employee said in a state lawsuit Monday.

Brenna Gonzalez was an 18-year-old college student when she started working at the restaurant's to-go operation in October 2018 and was immediately targeted by male colleagues and customers, according to her civil complaint, filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan.

At Smith & Wollensky, "she was subjected to various acts of sexual harassment by her supervisors and coworkers," the lawsuit claimed.

The acts included having "her breasts, lower back, and buttocks groped approximately 3 times per shift by staff and/or patrons, even after complaining of such conduct to her managers and/or supervisors," according to the civil complaint.

Throughout the lawsuit, Gonzalez described the sexual harassment she said she endured as "unwanted, disgusting, and offensive."

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Such treatment of female employees is all too regular in restaurants across America, said Eric Baum, Gonzalez's lawyer.

"With this lawsuit, Ms. Gonzalez hopes to shed light on a systemic problem that exists in the restaurant industry and particularly at Smith & Wollensky, so that hopefully no other woman or female employee of Smith & Wollensky will have to endure such horrible treatment in the future," Baum said in a statement Tuesday.

Allison Good, a vice president of marketing and communications for Quality Branded, a restaurant group that includes Smith & Wollensky, denied all of Gonzalez's claims.

"Her allegations were brought to our attention months ago," Good said Tuesday in a statement to NBC News. "At that time, we investigated and found them to be completely without merit."

Gonzalez's other claims include:

  • "A male customer who was a regular customer kissed her with no warning and no invitation, and when Plaintiff Gonzalez complained of his behavior, management affirmatively told her to let him continue engaging in that conduct," the lawsuit said.
  • When a co-worker continually pressed Gonzalez — who was under the legal drinking age — to go out for drinks, colleagues told her that he had been accused of sexual harassment before and that "we all denied it for him, who are they going to believe?"
  • She said tips were "withheld by managers and/or supervisors unless and until she performed certain sexualized favors for them, such as pouring water down the front of her white uniform shirt."
  • Bosses also, it is alleged, did not properly pay overtime and required her "to work off-the-clock and during her uncompensated meal breaks," the lawsuit said.

She left the job in May 2019.

The lawsuit does not seek a specific dollar amount in damages. The defendants include three corporate entities attached to the restaurant, its CEO, president and general manager and at least eight "John Doe" former co-workers.

Gonzalez, now a student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, is due to graduate in 2022, her lawyer said.