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Lawsuit alleges renowned Napa Valley resort, Solage, failed to stop sexual harassment

Resources to combat sexual abuse, support survivors

Verity: Sonoma County’s rape, crisis and trauma center, www.ourverity.org, 707-545-7273

Sonoma County Family Justice Center: www.fjcsc.org, 707-565-8255

ValorUS: formerly California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers committed to ending sexual violence and has a California Rape Crisis Center Directory, www.valor.us

Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists: www.recamft.org

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673, online.rainn.org

Years into the #MeToo movement, workers continue to contend with sexual harassment—and bosses who fail to prevent or address it.

That is the alleged case at the renowned Solage Resort & Spa in Napa Valley where management failed to address persistent sexual harassment endured and repeatedly reported by multiple women, according to a lawsuit filed against the luxury hotel, its parent company, Auberge Resort Collections, and Eliot Ferrer, the senior massage therapist and trainer accused of harassment.

“We exhausted every avenue to get something done about this, to keep him away,” says plaintiff Leila Muller, 33, of filing suit in December along with her colleague, Amy, 34, who worked as a massage therapist with Muller at the Spa at Solage.

A third woman, Beatriz, 25, formerly a sales agent in Solage’s reservations department, has since joined the lawsuit. (Amy and Beatriz are aliases as both still work in the hospitality industry in the area.)

Multiple calls, emails and messages to Solage Resort & Spa, Auberge Resort Collections and Ferrer went unanswered and not returned.

The lawsuit alleged Ferrer’s inappropriate behavior included intrusive questions about the women’s personal lives and relationships, sexual talk, inappropriate touching and, later, increasingly threatening behavior like waiting for them in the parking lot after shifts.

The lawsuit claims Ferrer invited Muller and Amy to do massage trainings at his home after work hours (which they refused.) Beatriz would sometimes feel trapped in uncomfortable conversation with Ferrer in the break room, the complaint says, and once had to push past as he stood blocking the doorway.

“His unwelcome and intrusive behavior, both verbally and physically, permeated their work environment at Auberge,” the suit reads.

“I've worked at a lot of places,” says Amy, who, as an on-call massage therapist, has been in as many as eight spas at a time. “I’m very familiar with spa personalities, and this is the first one that stopped me in my tracks.”

The behavior described—which reportedly continued and escalated over the course of more than a year—is just one dimension of the litigation. The other is management’s alleged failure to protect its employees.

According to the lawsuit, Muller and Amy eventually reported the harassment to supervisors and human resources. Management investigated, allegedly corroborated the women’s claims and promised to take action, including disciplining Ferrer and assuring the women’s schedules wouldn’t overlap with his.

But the women say no relief came. They continued to be put in close quarters with Ferrer, and he continued his harassing behavior. Muller and Amy say they continued to convey their discomfort to both Ferrer and management to no avail.

In fact, Muller and Amy claim the situation only worsened, with Ferrer becoming increasingly hostile after they complained and Muller even losing appointments to him.

Feeling out of options, Muller took to hiding out in spa treatments rooms to avoid Ferrer. “I would see a shadow and think, ‘He’s coming in here,’” she says.

Amy felt similarly trapped. “It broke me down,” she told me in an interview. “The fact that they weren't doing anything about it week after week after week. It was mentally draining, emotionally draining.”

Beatriz said she informally mentioned her own discomfort with Ferrer to a manager who apparently took no action, according to the suit. Discouraged, she suffered in silence until she later left Solage in late 2019.

“A work environment was created where nobody felt safe,” says John Winer, senior partner at Winer, Burritt & Scott LLP, the law firm representing the plaintiffs.

“If you let somebody get away with this, if you don't fire somebody who has multiple accusations with credible proof, the problem is going to spread.”

Experts say and research shows harassment permeates workplaces in every industry, but especially hospitality and industries with low-wage workers and little oversight.

One-third of California women reporting sexual harassment said it happened in the workplace, according to a 2019 survey. Transgender and nonbinary people are also frequently victimized. (Men are too, though to a lesser degree.)

While important, having workplace sexual harassment policies in place is just part of the solution. Solage, a high-profile hotel and spa, has harassment training and protocols that the women followed to report Ferrer.

“It's really easy to talk the talk of anti-sexual harassment policy,” Winer told me.

“What's important is whether you walk the walk of actually enforcing that policy, and Auberge did absolutely nothing. That sends a terrible message to all the employees, a message that if somebody complains, it's not going to do any good whatsoever.”

Resources to combat sexual abuse, support survivors

Verity: Sonoma County’s rape, crisis and trauma center, www.ourverity.org, 707-545-7273

Sonoma County Family Justice Center: www.fjcsc.org, 707-565-8255

ValorUS: formerly California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers committed to ending sexual violence and has a California Rape Crisis Center Directory, www.valor.us

Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists: www.recamft.org

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673, online.rainn.org

And the consequences of creating such a culture are real and long-lasting.

Beatriz, who was only 23 years old at the time and in her first “real” job didn’t know to call what was happening sexual harassment at first, she says, but her anxiety mounted as she became increasingly uncomfortable and unsure where to turn.

“I had to leave work early all the time,” Beatriz tells me. “I would just be so sick to my stomach, and I’d have to run to the spa bathroom to throw up.”

After she left Solage, she continued to obsess and have nightmares about her experience, she said.

“I love hospitality,” Beatriz says. “It's an industry I can definitely see myself doing for the rest of my life, but that left a pretty big scar and lasting impression.”

For Muller, it meant the difficult decision of leaving a career behind.

“I really loved my job,” she tells me. “That was what I did for a living, and Solage was the top of the industry, so I was really sad, and I was pregnant at the time so everything was a lot more stressful.”

Muller left when the pandemic hit and is now a nurse.

In Amy’s case, the nightmare isn’t over.

After losing jobs to the pandemic, she was “desperate to go back to work” when restrictions began to ease. She returned to Solage as an on-call therapist and says she was told she wouldn’t be scheduled with Ferrer.

She has since had to work with him, she says, though she hasn’t been there in a few months.

“I do my best to not make eye contact,” Amy tells me. “The dynamics there really haven't changed. It’s just very heartbreaking.” (Again, Solage and its parent company did not return repeated requests for comment.)

Solage is one of 23 resorts across multiple continents, including another in Napa Valley, owned by Auberge Resort Collections, whose employees number in the thousands. So how the company responds to this lawsuit has significant implications.

It’s well-documented that workplace sexual harassment is underreported. Power imbalances abound, and research shows retaliation is a common issue. Moreover, few formal charges make it to court.

Because of these barriers, there’s a clear argument for the burden to be on management to prevent and address harassment.

“For systemic change to happen, it needs to be top down,” says Matthew Stegmeier, director of operations for Project WHEN, a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating workplace harassment via research and trainings.

In the meantime, though, employees should know the resources and tools at their disposal and be empowered to report harassment if it feels safe to do so.

Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal and advocacy organization, has a comprehensive guide to the many types of sexual harassment, federal and state protections, employees’ rights, a step-by-step reporting how-to, complaint templates and contacts for legal aid (https://www.equalrights.org/issue/economic-workplace-equality/sexual-harassment/).

Experts emphasize the importance of putting communications in writing whenever possible to build a paper trail.

If an employer fails to address concerns or retaliates (which is illegal), workers can file a complaint with a government agency like California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) (https://www.dfeh.ca.gov/complaintprocess/).

New California laws give sexual harassment victims more time to file complaints with the DFEH and ban forced arbitration as a condition of employment. Remember, too, that in California, all workers, including interns, contractors and volunteers have the same anti-sexual harassment protections under the law as full-time employees.

While the system is imperfect, existing protections and resources can be leveraged, when it’s safe to do so, to hold employers accountable and even provide a lifeline for others.

“I didn't realize that this was something that was happening to other people,” says Beatriz, who joined the litigation only after learning about the other women’s experiences via initial coverage of the lawsuit in the Napa Valley Register.

“There’s strength in numbers. At the time when I was working at Solage, I really felt alone.”

If you have information related to the alleged harassment at Auberge Resorts (or elsewhere) that you want to share, please, get in touch with me.

“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

Marisa Endicott

“In Your Corner” Columnist, The Press Democrat

Born and raised in Northern California, I'm dedicated to getting to know all its facets and helping track down the answers to tough questions. I want to use my experience as a journalist and an investigator to shine a light on local systems, policies and practices so residents have the information they need to advocate for the changes they want to see. I’m passionate about centering the many voices in the communities I cover, and I want readers to guide my work.

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