SF butch lesbian bartender sues Red Lobster for discrimination

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday February 23, 2024
Share this Post:
Nora Nunez, a former bartender at Red Lobster, has sued the casual dining chain for discrimination based on her sexual orientation and gender expression. Photo: Courtesy Benton Employment Law
Nora Nunez, a former bartender at Red Lobster, has sued the casual dining chain for discrimination based on her sexual orientation and gender expression. Photo: Courtesy Benton Employment Law

A San Francisco butch lesbian bartender is suing the Red Lobster casual dining chain, alleging that her supervisor discriminated against her in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Nora Nunez's attorney, Chambord Benton-Hayes of Benton Employment Law, filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court February 22 against Red Lobster Hospitality LLC; her former manager Michael Waller; and Geoff Reder, who, as director of operations for Red Lobster, did not conduct a formal investigation when the matter was brought to his attention, the civil complaint in the case states.

The lawsuit accuses the manager and operations director of treating Nunez differently because of her sexual orientation and gender expression, a news release from her attorneys stated. She had worked for the company for 11 years.

At the time Nunez, 42, was working as a bartender for Red Lobster in San Bernardino when in November 2021 Waller became the general manager of the location Nunez was working at.

"Being a bartender brought her joy because she loves people," the civil complaint states. "Her goal each night was to ensure that every customer left their worries at the door and enjoyed their meal with great food, a drink or two, and, hopefully, a little laughter. This all abruptly changed when Michael Waller became her General Manager. She quickly realized that he disliked her because she was a butch lesbian. He targeted her relentlessly."

The complaint states that one way Waller targeted Nunez was by being "rude, standoffish, and dismissive to Nunez whereas he was friendly and gregarious with other employees and customers."

"As an example of his consistently churlish behavior toward Nunez, Waller on one occasion gave chocolates to all of the employees except Nunez," the complaint states.

"He further demonstrated his disparate treatment of other employees by allowing one employee to park in 'no parking zones' without comment or complaint and allowing sexually harassing comments to permeate the workplace."

In a February 26 phone interview with the B.A.R., Nunez said that in front of several officials visiting from corporate, Waller told her "I don't care what they say, you're going to do what I say."

"If I was around, I was the one to blame," she recalled. "I'm the only butch dyke in the restaurant — so I know for a fact it was the fact I look butch."

Nunez said a more feminine-presenting lesbian faced no problems from Waller; in fact, she got perks.

"He was all over her," Nunez recalled. "I loved Red Lobster. I loved Red Lobster for 11 years of my life, and I gave it everything I had. I loved my crew and every single place I worked — till Mr. Waller came along."

In December 2021, Waller "denied an employee's request for time off because she was ill and had COVID-19 like symptoms," the complaint alleges. Nunez approached Waller about this but her warnings went unheeded.

"For the remainder of her shift, he behaved unkindly and curtly with Nunez," the complaint states. "Shortly thereafter, a COVID-19 outbreak occurred among the employees of the restaurant."

In June 2022, Nunez brought her complaints about Waller up the chain of command to Reder, the complaint states.

"Reder reassured Nunez that it would be 'okay' and that he would discuss these matters with Waller," the complaint states. "Thereafter, no formal investigation was conducted and Waller's mistreatment and discrimination escalated. On or about June 3, 2022, within days of formally complaining about Waller's mistreatment and discrimination that resulted in no formal investigation, and after the confrontation with Waller about parking in the 'no parking zone,' Nunez received her first disciplinary warning in eleven years of employment."

Things only got more fraught from there, the complaint alleges.

"Doubling down on the continued harassment and retaliation, on or about June 30, 2022, Waller called Nunez and told her she was suspended without pay for bullying, which was another deliberate swing at her butch lesbian identification," the complaint states.

"It is a stereotypical misconception that butch lesbians are aggressive and are bullies, which was in line with the perceived opinions of Waller towards butch lesbians," the lawsuit states. "Nunez denied the allegations and asked who she was allegedly bullying, but Waller refused to name specific individuals. Waller stated that it was 'multiple people' and that 'I should not have to ask you not to bully people.' Waller then abruptly hung up the phone."

In July 2022, four days after the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board served a notice that Nunez had filed a complaint with it, Nunez was terminated by Waller and Reder, the complaint states.

"What happened to me at Red Lobster showed me that prejudice still has a seat at the table, even at a national chain that pretends to be about warmth and hospitality," Nunez stated in the release. "I'm fighting back, not just for my own sake, but to challenge a system that allows discrimination to infect the workplace."

Attorney Benton-Hayes stated, "All of us should expect a restaurant chain to value safety and fair treatment for its employees and the general public."

"In this case, not only did Red Lobster let prejudice ruin the career of a bartender who was beloved by customers, it also put the public at risk by ignoring her concerns about COVID-19 safety in the workplace," Benton-Hayes continued.

The defendants claim to have lost Nunez's personnel file and payroll records, the complaint states.

The suit also alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and failure to provide personnel records.

Red Lobster Hospitality LLC did not return a request for comment.

Waller and Reder could not be reached for comment. The individual who picked up the phone at the Red Lobster location in San Bernardino said that Waller was on vacation, and referred the B.A.R. to Red Lobster Hospitality LLC.

Updated, 2/27/24: This article has been updated with comments from Nora Nunez.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!