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Company defends position in weight lawsuits, says it ‘absolutely will not settle’
C & G Newspapers
By Robin Ruehlen, C & G Staff Writer
June 3, 2010
ROSEVILLE — In the eyes of Hooters of America Inc., the image of its waitresses is just as important as good wings, good beer and good times at its “family-style” establishments.
Corporate vice president of marketing Mike McNeil brought his response to a weight discrimination lawsuit filed by former Hooters waitress Cassandra Smith from Atlanta all the way to Roseville — along with three orange-shorted star Hooters Girls.
“I guess what the basis of this lawsuit is, it matters what a Hooters Girl looks like in every other state except Michigan,” McNeil said during the June 2 press conference at the company’s Roseville location on Gratiot.
“Well, I’m here to tell that it matters what they look like in Michigan as well, and we intend to defend ourselves all the way.”
Smith, 20, filed a civil lawsuit against the company in Macomb County Circuit Court on May 24 following her May 14 employment evaluation. The lawsuit claims she was “admonished, disciplined and counseled” by supervisors about the fit of her uniform, and told to join a gym in order to lose weight and improve her looks within 30 days, or face termination.
The 5-foot-8-inch, 132.5-pound college student wore an extra-small size uniform, and claims she was actually 145 pounds at the time she was hired.
McNeil called the lawsuit “baseless and self-serving,” adding that Smith is actually making the company’s case by stating to “anyone who will listen” her height and weight before and after she was hired.
“She told everyone that she was not asked to lose weight. This is one weight discrimination lawsuit that won’t go very far,” McNeil said.
McNeil was flanked by Miss Hooters International 2009 Raechel Holtgrave, Atlanta Hooters Girl Ericka Whitaker and Roseville Hooters Girl Brittany Richter.
“I’m proud to be a Hooters Girl, and I know that wearing the orange shorts comes with many responsibilities,” Holtgrave said.
Hooters Girls are required to attend image classes and workshops and take a so-called image quiz to test their understanding of the company’s image standards, and must sign a pledge to “uphold the Hooters Girl image.”
Hooters of America claims it has never before been sued for weight discrimination, “does not have a weight requirement, nor does it discriminate against anyone based on weight.”
At the same time McNeil was addressing reporters at Hooters, however, another former Hooters Girl was filing a similar lawsuit in Macomb County Circuit Court.
Roseville resident Leanne Convery claims she was hired at the Roseville location in March 2004, and later terminated in August 2009 for violating “weight probation policies.”
According to the lawsuit, Convery, who is 4 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 115 pounds, was told on July 6 of last year that she had 30 days to make her extra-small tank top and shorts “fit more properly,” or lose her job. She then launched into a crash diet, the suit claims, losing 15 pounds in 30 days, but was fired anyway on Aug. 10 for showing “no improvement.”
The suit also alleges Convery was encouraged by fellow Hooters employees to take weight-suppression drugs.
Richard Bernstein, attorney for both Smith and Convery, said McNeil’s statement summed up the corporation’s outrageous attitude towards the case.
“(McNeil) said they were not going to allow Michigan’s civil rights law to get in the way of Hooters upholding its image,” he said.
“You have a corporation that feels it’s above the law, and feels that it can do whatever it pleases. That is simply not the case.”
He said previously that the Atlanta, Ga.-based company is in direct violation of the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employee discrimination based on weight.
Bernstein, who is blind, said he can’t visualize what 4 feet 11 inches looks like — but he knows the incredible courage it has taken for the women to come forward.
“They understand this is about civil rights, and they recognize that they’re involved in something that will have a lasting impact on the lives of people across the country,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, the impact of the lawsuit and the national exposure is not easy for his clients.
“When you’re fighting for a cause that is meaningful and will make a difference, that’s how change happens, and change never comes easy,” he said.
In addition to the two lawsuits, Bernstein said, former Hooters Girl and certified corporate trainer Melissa Jacquemain has given a sworn affidavit describing the practice of “weight probation” at the Roseville location, as well as hostility she faced from management after reporting what she describes as widespread drug use of Adderall, cocaine and Vicodin among staff.
“The whole thing is shocking to the conscience,” Bernstein said.
“When you get into discovery, you start to realize how bad things are. I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more people coming forward. You really get to tear apart a company in discovery.”
Both Smith and Convery are suing for over $25,000 in damages.
McNeil said Hooters “absolutely will not settle.”
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