Los Angeles Labor & Employment Team Secures Defense Verdict in Sexual Harassment Suit

Los Angeles, Calif. (September 18, 2019) – Los Angeles Partners Melissa Tara Daugherty and Kerri R. Lutfey, and Senior Associate Ashleigh R. Kasper, recently secured a jury verdict for a defendant facing claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault and battery in a case involving the luxury fitness company Equinox. The plaintiff, represented by one of the top firms handling sexual assault cases in California, was a former Pilates instructor at Equinox’s West Hollywood club who claimed she was sexually harassed and assaulted by the defendant, a massage therapist at the same club, in September 2016. She claimed that following the assault, she went out on a leave of absence for work-related stress and was thereafter wrongfully terminated. 

The plaintiff had received dozens of massages over a two-year period from the defendant. She had also referred clients to him and praised his abilities. During one of these dozens of massages, the plaintiff claimed she was sexually harassed and reported the incident to Equinox. The plaintiff then took a leave of absence, claiming emotional distress, and was also later terminated by Equinox, who invited her to reapply when she was able to return to work. The plaintiff later brought suit against our client and Equinox, alleging claims for sexual harassment, sexual assault and battery, failure to investigate and prevent harassment, disability discrimination, failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, and failure to engage in the interactive process regarding a potential reasonable accommodation against Equinox.

Our client vigorously denied engaging in any inappropriate conduct during the massage in question. On direct and cross-examination, our client strenuously maintained that the plaintiff’s claims were simply untrue. Additionally, the plaintiff admitted to verbally thanking our client after the massage, and then sending him a text message, thanking him again. For its part, Equinox contended that it had taken prompt and thorough action in response to the plaintiff’s initial complaint, and that it had provided the appropriate required leave of absence, only terminating the plaintiff when it became apparent that she would not be returning to work at any point in the foreseeable future. The evidence in the case established that the plaintiff’s version of what happened during the massage had changed no fewer than eight times, and the defense’s psychological expert opined that the plaintiff transposed past trauma onto an otherwise normal massage and awoke with the tragic but erroneous belief that she had been assaulted.

Following two and a half weeks of trial, we were successful in persuading the plaintiff to dismiss the sexual assault and battery claims before the jury deliberated and in dismissing punitive damages against our client. The case was then submitted to the jury and after only two and a half hours of deliberations, they returned a complete defense verdict in favor of our client and Equinox. The jury found that our client had not sexually harassed the plaintiff, and that the plaintiff was unable to return to work (and that Equinox could not, therefore, be liable for her termination or for failing to accommodate her disability).

"Part of what we believe led to our successful verdict was the favorable outcomes of our motion in limine rulings coupled with our strategic thematic planning," said Ms. Daugherty, who sat first chair during the trial. "We focused on the plaintiff’s significant inconsistencies in her case, and as more inconsistencies presented themselves in the documentary evidence, in the depositions, and ultimately on cross-examination at trial, the jury found her less and less credible. We juxtaposed that against our client’s demonstrated integrity and passion for his trade, which shined through on the witness stand. Our client is relieved that he can finally move on and continue to work in his chosen profession."

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