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Swami’s Café in Encinitas. The company is accused of sexually harassing young female employees in a federal lawsuit. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
Swami’s Café in Encinitas. The company is accused of sexually harassing young female employees in a federal lawsuit. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
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Swami’s Café accused of sexually harassing underage female staff

ENCINITAS — The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on May 17 in federal court against Swami’s Café, alleging a local manager and others sexually harassed younger female employees daily in a “highly-sexualized work environment.”

Swami’s 101 LLC owns all the Swami’s Café locations in San Diego County, with restaurants in Encinitas, Vista, Carlsbad, Escondido, Oceanside, La Mesa and several in San Diego. The company also owns the popular Honey’s Bistro in Encinitas.

A majority of the allegations outlined in the complaint focus on John Nolan, manager of Swami’s Café in Encinitas.

Several female employees, some as young as 16, reported Nolan created “a hostile work environment by, among other things, inappropriately touching and making sexual comments to young female employees, as well as attempting to have sexual relationships with young female employees,” according to the lawsuit.

Nolan allegedly had “favorites,” young female employees that received more flexible shift schedules and expensive gifts, such as bikes, surfboards, alcohol and illegal drugs.

Along with the favoritism shown to certain employees, Nolan also made unwelcome comments towards female staff, calling them “angels,” “sexy,” and “heartbreakers,” and commenting on employees’ physical appearances, the complaint alleges.

Nolan also allegedly touched staff on their waists, lower backs, and shoulders and invited female employees to sleep over or live full-time at his home.

If the female employees did not comply with his actions, Nolan allegedly retaliated against them, removing them from the schedule, firing them, physically intimidating them, or unfairly reprimanding them in front of restaurant customers.

One female employee claims Nolan occasionally threw heavy receipt rolls and cardboard boxes at her.

Nolan was not the only named defendant in the lawsuit. Several cooks at other restaurant locations, a dishwasher at Honey’s Bistro and Swami’s Café owner Jaime Osuna were also listed in the complaint filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

According to the court documents, Osuna was present and joined Nolan when he commented on a 17-year-old new hire being a “tall, beautiful Venezuelan.”

Per the complaint, the company never took any steps to prevent harassing behavior from continuing, as many who complained were eventually fired or left on their own. The company allegedly had no sexual harassment training or human resources department for employees to file complaints.

Swami’s operations manager Hulises Contreras carried out all HR functions, but “the company never informed its employees of this and did not make employees aware of any complaint mechanism other than complaining to their supervisors, often the harassers,” according to the court documents.

In addition to this lawsuit, the federal employment oversight agency has reported an increase in cases involving younger workers not being informed of their rights and encouraged by their employers to not come forward about workplace issues.

“We are seeing more cases involving younger workers who may not be aware of their rights or may be hesitant to report harassment because this is their first time in the workforce,” said Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District Office, whose jurisdiction includes San Diego County. “Employers should take greater care to ensure young workers are protected in the workplace by having effective policies and procedures, training, and accountability measures in place.”

According to the complaint, Nolan threatened several of the employees after the start of the investigation, texting them that they would be “in trouble” if they cooperated with the investigation. Nolan also texted staff members about the employee who came forward to investigators, calling her “a liar and mean disturbed person.”

Nolan also reportedly called the commission’s investigation an “attempt to extort Swamis Café,” and asked for “anyone who will agree to testify against the charging party, please forward that in writing, it will shut her down.”

The lawsuit does not explicitly name defendants, and additional individuals may be named in the complaint in the future. The allegations violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

According to the complaint, Swami’s cooperated with the investigation since it began in July 2022, but since a pre-litigation settlement was not reached, the federal agency is seeking monetary damages for the claimants, including compensatory and punitive damages, and injunctive relief against the company to prevent such unlawful conduct in the future.

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