Steven C. Ellis, a former server, says he was forced out of a job at a local restaurant after complaining about workplace sexual harassment and gender stereotyping — including having his genitals groped and being referred to in feminine terms.
Ellis worked as a server at Ruby’s Diner in the King of Prussia Mall from August 2004-May 2007, and says he experienced daily mistreatment from members of the kitchen staff and certain managers.
He recently filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the restaurant chain, claiming his alleged mistreatment was so severe, it caused medical problems and has impeded his ability to function in society.
“[Ellis] experienced orchestrated and constant discrimination and retaliation — all under the watchful eye of his supervisors and coworkers,” the suit alleges.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Thomas N. O’Neill Jr.
Carolyn Hamamchian, a spokesperson for Ruby’s Diner Inc., based in Newport Beach, Calif., declined to comment about the specifics of Ellis’ allegations.
“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation,” Hamamchian stated in an e-mail. “However, it is important to note that as a company, Ruby’s Diner has zero tolerance for harassment of any kind.”
Kitchen staff routinely referred to Ellis as “Stephanie,” often within earshot of customers, causing him great embarrassment, his suit maintains. His name also was listed as “Stephanie” on a restaurant display board that listed each worker’s duties for a particular shift, according to his lawsuit.
Ellis, 30, of the Kensington section, followed the specified protocol for filing complaints about the alleged mistreatment, but his complaints were not addressed effectively, the suit alleges.
“Complaints to management did not effect a change in the staff,” states the allegation.
When kitchen staff learned of Ellis’ complaints, his food orders were prepared in an inferior manner, causing his customers inconvenience and decreasing their incentive to tip him generously, according to the lawsuit.
In addition to having his genitals groped, Ellis experienced other types of unwanted touching by coworkers, and was subjected to “crude and suggestive comments and pejorative name-calling” that cast doubt on his manhood, the complaint states.
His complaints resulted in ostracism and being branded as a “troublemaker.” Other forms of retaliation included having his work hours reduced and being encouraged to transfer to a less desirable work location, according to Ellis’ lawsuit.
In May 2007, after a particularly upsetting episode of being towel-slapped by kitchen staff, Ellis attended a meeting with management to discuss his concerns, he alleged.
However, managers at the meeting allegedly displayed a lack of sensitivity to Ellis — to the point where Ellis actually feared for his physical safety and left the meeting, according to his lawsuit.
“Plaintiff felt threatened of a potential physical altercation,” states the complaint.
After that incident, Ellis was placed on paid administrative leave for about two months while upper-level management investigated his allegations of sexual harassment and gender stereotyping.
After about two months, Ellis was informed by supervisors that his complaints were unsubstantiated and he was ordered back to work, but at an alternate location.
Ellis declined to work at the other location, saying he viewed the transfer as punitive. Additionally, some of his alleged harassers worked at the alternate location, and his pay there wouldn’t have been commensurate with that of the King of Prussia location, according to his lawsuit.
His employment ended after he declined to work at the alternate location.
Citing a hostile work environment, Ellis sought medical treatment for severe anxiety and depression, for which he continues to be treated. His symptoms include mood swings, headaches, heart palpitations, panic attacks and sleeplessness, according the suit.
Ellis is seeking punitive and compensatory damages, including compensation for loss of income, loss of benefits, loss of training, loss of promotions, loss of seniority and court costs and fees.
At press time, O’Neill had not issued a scheduling order for the litigation and attorneys for Ruby’s Diner Inc. hadn’t responded to Ellis’ allegations in legal papers, according to court documents.
Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.