AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Strippers' lawsuits challenging the industry

This week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News published an explosive story about alleged sexual assaults inside midtown strip club The Cheetah, but the lawsuits filed by dancers against the club are part of a larger trend.

Across the nation, exotic dancers are suing their current or former clubs, seeking to change how they are treated and upend a longstanding the employee-management relationship that the strippers say takes advantage of them.

The former Cheetah dancers say they were groped, drugged and in one case raped by customers in the club’s private VIP rooms. They also claim that they got no help from club security and other employees when they complained or went for help.

The Cheetah, through their attorneys, deny the dancers claims and have filed their own lawsuit for slander.

That’s similar to a 2015 lawsuit filed against Larry Flint’s Hustler Club in Las Vegas. The plaintiff, a former stripper named Brandi Campbell, filed suit saying her supervisors ignored her complaints against customers and even engaged in harassing behavior themselves.

Campbell responded by filing a federal lawsuit alleging the club misclassified her as a contractor, a strategy that is working out for strippers across the nation who believe they have been unfairly treated by their employers.

Like Campbell, several of former Cheetah dancers, including Alison Valente, who spoke to the AJC and Channel 2 about alleged abuse at the club, have filed a class action lawsuit challenging their status as "independent contractors." Strip clubs traditionally have viewed their dancers as contractors, rather than employees, which has meant that strippers work for tips rather than wages.

A federal lawsuit filed in 2015 by several Cheetah dancers claims the club treated them like employees and should have paid them as such. For instance, the dancers allege in their lawsuit that club management held them to certain policies and guidelines, set their schedules and how much they could charge, and required them to tip out a certain amount of their income to other staff.

The lawsuit is pending, but it's not unique. Last week, a former dancer for The Clermont Lounge, another well-known Atlanta strip club, filed a lawsuit making a very similar argument and claiming lost wages and overtime.

Another class action was filed last year against Athens club Toppers International Showbar. In recent years dancers sued Onyx in Atlanta and Pinups in Decatur, among others.

Not only are dancers suing the clubs, they are winning. The dancers who sued Onyx got a $1.55 million settlement. More than 200 dancers filed a class action lawsuit against Rick’s Cabaret in New York City, wining a $10.9 million verdict. A Dallas club paid former dancers $2.3 million in 2014 for their claim.

"These are employees, no different from waiters or waitresses," Silver Spring, Md., attorney Gregg C. Greenberg, recently told The Baltimore Sun.

It's not just strippers who are complaining they have been miscast as contractors. In 2013, a federal audit reported that the IRS believes millions of workers are classified as contractors when they should in fact be paid regular wages.

"Determining the correct worker classification affects who is responsible for paying the Social Security tax, Medicare tax, and Federal unemployment taxes, as well as whether or not Federal income tax withholding is needed," the audit states. "The misclassification of employees as independent contractors is a nationwide problem affecting millions of workers that continues to grow and contribute to the Tax Gap." (The "tax gap" is IRS speak for the difference between what the government believes is owed in taxes and what taxpayers actually pay.)

Labor lawyers are warning strip club who use the contractor model to think carefully about their own exposure, so to speak.

A blog post by Atlanta employment law firm Mays and Keer advises, “The successes of employees in court should serve as a warning that, regardless of how you’ve done business in the past, it may be worth reassessing to determine if your independent contractor workers really do fit within that category.”

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Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.