AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Atlanta strippers to get their day in court

Strippers suing the upscale Atlanta club The Cheetah have now cleared initial legal hurdles and are headed to court.

A group of exotic dancers led by one of their colleagues, Alison Valente, last year sued the Midtown strip club where they used to work, for money they believe they were shorted via the club's legal maneuvers. Valente has also filed a claim of sexual harassment.  After her interview with the AJC, TV stations and even USA Today and radio programs aired her story.

Now an arbitrator and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have cleared the way for the dancers to pitch some of their arguments to a judge and jury. The case could highlight issues at the heart of U.S. worker disputes today, including access to the courts as opposed to private arbitration.

Valente describes an environment where her pushback to illegal acts at the club brought retribution. "It's not fair," she said. "You should have a right to be a professional."

A lawyer for the Cheetah, Bennet Alsher, has denied any illegal activities at the club and said Valente was fired for other, job-related reasons. He also says the women all knew what they were signing up for: An industry that considers them contractors, not employees, where they can make a lot of tip money but forfeit wages, overtime and possible health benefits -- and where chunks of their tip money go for the privilege of working there.

Also, Alsher maintained, they know it's a system where they don't go to court to settle their disputes but accept the decision of a paid professional arbitrator.

"When these dancers start working, they know they're going to be treated and paid as independent contractors," Alsher said. "That is the standard in the industry, that is the standard in Atlanta clubs."

Valente disagrees.  And the argument about contractors has stumbled in court.

Harlan Miller, an Atlanta employment lawyer who is representing three dozen dancers from several strip clubs, says the clubs persist in making the contractor claim even though courts have declared it invalid.  In November, an arbitrator ruled that one of his clients was not only misclassified as a contractor, but also that Cheetah did so not in good faith and willfully violated the law.

"These guys have gotten rich with this business model," Miller said this month. "Rich, rich, rich. That's why they're so reluctant to make changes to it."

The EEOC recently affirmed Valente's right to sue over her sexual harassment claim. Separately, an arbitrator declined to force the dancers into arbitration but said they could ask a court to decide whether the arbitration policy was in force at the time of those strippers' employment.

"I feel great," said Jim McDonough, the lawyer who is representing Valente.

His opponent, the Cheetah's attorney Bennet Alsher, dismissed the significance of the EEOC's action, which is a common step on the way to court.  He said the club would resolve the case in the courts, not in the press.

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About the Author

Ariel Hart is a reporter on health care issues. She works on the AJC’s politics team and has reported on subjects including the Voting Rights Act and transportation.