Editor’s note: This story describes sexual assault and rape.
An undocumented woman is alleging she was raped by her supervisor at Taste! Craft Eatery in Paso Robles, saying the restaurant then retaliated against her after she reported it, a new lawsuit says.
The woman is a Venezuelan refugee fleeing political prosecution and seeking asylum in the United States, the lawsuit says. Her name was not disclosed after a judge ruled to protect her privacy.
According to the lawsuit, the woman was told her immigration status would not be a problem in getting a job at the restaurant in November 2022. Luis Alberto Santana, the kitchen manager of the Paso Robles Taste location, proceeded to hire her as part of the kitchen staff, the lawsuit says.
Shortly after she was hired, the woman said Santana took her to a motel in town and raped her, after which he threatened to call ICE if the woman reported anything and proceeded to stop others from helping her at work, made lewd comments about her body and cut her hours, according to the lawsuit.
Keith Fink, the restaurant’s attorney, told The Tribune in an emailed response that the sexual relationship between the woman and Santana was consensual and occurred outside of the workplace. He also said all the allegations in the lawsuit were a lie.
“I really do not see this as a story. The claims here have no merit,” the lawyer said. “What you do know for sure is that (the woman) came to the United States illegally, then once here got phony papers to use to get a job. She then lied repeatedly to Taste to get a job.”
Santana still works at the restaurant, Fink said, and “is a good employee.”
The woman filed the lawsuit under 12 causes of action, including sexual assault and harassment, violating labor laws and wrongful termination.
Attorneys for the woman told The Tribune they do not have additional comment on the case outside of the complaint.
Taste has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit in court.
The lawsuit says the woman reported the rape to the Paso Robles Police Department, but the agency told The Tribune it needs 10 days to respond to a request for more information.
There is no criminal case filed in court against Santana at this time.
Woman raped by supervisor in hotel room, lawsuit alleges
According to the lawsuit, the woman arrived to the United States with no family or friends. She rented a bed “in the home of strangers and sought work to sustain herself while she sought asylum.”
The woman applied to Taste in November 2022. She disclosed her immigration status to Santana prior to being hired and asked if it would be a problem, the lawsuit says.
Santana told her, “Don’t worry, all of us here are working that way,” the lawsuit says.
Then, on Dec. 29, Santana invited the woman to coffee.
“Because Santana was her supervisor,” the lawsuit says, “(the woman) felt she had to accept.”
Instead of coffee, the lawsuit alleges, Santana brought the woman to the Economy Inn in Paso Robles, despite her asking him to take her home, telling him she was not interested in him romantically and noting he was a married man.
When it began to rain, Santana suggested they go inside and talk about the woman’s home country of Venezuela until it passed.
“(The woman) said no and repeated her request to be taken home,” the lawsuit says. “Santana insisted nothing was going to happen. He just wanted to talk and get to know her.”
The woman didn’t know anyone she could call to pick her up and ultimately agreed to go inside until the rain stopped, the lawsuit says.
Once inside the hotel room, however, the woman said in the lawsuit that Santana “forced himself” on her and raped her.
Afterward, as he drove the woman home, the lawsuit alleges, Santana told the woman she should be grateful he gave her a job and told her many other people wanted her job if she did not make an effort to be more agreeable. He also said he could fire her whenever he wanted, the lawsuit says.
Supervisor threatened, harassed woman, lawsuit says
The next day at work, the lawsuit says, Santana would not speak to the woman, which made her worry that he would “follow through on his threat to fire her.”
A few days later, according to the suit, Santana called the woman into his office and repeated that “he could fire her if she wasn’t nicer to him.”
Meanwhile, Santana continued to touch the woman’s backside, make sexual comments toward her and call her to his office in the days and weeks that followed the alleged rape, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit alleges the manager also harassed the woman over the phone by texting her for dates and asking for photos from her and forbade her from speaking to or being near other male employees.
Santana told the woman that no one would believe her if she told anyone about what happened in the hotel room, the lawsuit says.
“He threatened to call the immigration authorities if she told anyone or tried to sue him, saying, ‘With just one phone call, I can ruin your entire (immigration) process,’” the lawsuit says.
The woman said she cried often at work because Santana’s “abuse was unbearable,” but she was afraid to tell her coworkers what happened.
When the woman told Santana she was not interested and to stop making comments about her body, Santana increased her workload and prohibited other employees from helping her, the lawsuit says.
“(The woman) did what she was told, afraid that if she made Santana angry, he would fire her,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit claims there was little opportunity for the woman to complain and report to anyone above Santana. The restaurant’s human resources director only showed up at Taste to drop off paychecks and did not speak Spanish, the lawsuit says.
In February, the lawsuit says, the woman’s landlord asked why the woman was “emotionally distraught,” and she told the landlord about the alleged rape and harassment.
On March 3, the lawsuit says, the woman then confided to a female coworker named Ivonne about the alleged assault and harassment. Ivonne encouraged the woman to report the incident to the police, which she did that day.
Two days later, the lawsuit alleges, the woman’s paycheck was missing. That’s when she was told she had to sign additional papers in order to receive her check because she was being terminated “per Santana’s orders,” the lawsuit says.
The woman said she refused to sign the papers and left.
She returned to the restaurant the next day and met with the human resources director, Kim Rennie. Ivonne translated for the woman as she reported the alleged sexual assault, harassment and missing paycheck, the lawsuit says. Rennie told the woman to return to work the next day.
When she did, she learned Ivonne had been promoted to her supervisor in place of Santana.
According to the lawsuit, the woman said Ivonne’s attitude toward her changed. The woman’s hours were cut, the lawsuit says, but she was given a heavier workload and assigned to clean the restaurant bathrooms and trash despite being hired for kitchen duties.
Again, the lawsuit says, coworkers were forbidden from helping her even if she was falling behind.
One of the owners of Taste, Gretchen LeMiere, instructed Ivonne to tell the woman to clean the bathrooms despite the restaurant having a janitorial staff, according to the lawsuit.
When the woman complained to Ivonne about the increased workload, the lawsuit says, she was told, “The owners said that if workers keep complaining they will close down the restaurant and everyone will be fired.”
Taste gave the woman a sexual harassment investigation form in April, the lawsuit says.
Through Ivonne’s translation of Rennie, the lawsuit says, the woman was instructed to not report the alleged sexual assault on the form because the human resources director conducted an investigation and found the sex to be consensual, and “the owners have to protect the restaurant.”
Rennie told the woman that if she did not follow the instructions, the lawsuit alleges, the owners would call ICE. Rennie also told the woman she would be terminated if she could not provide proof that she could legally work in the United States by April 13.
The woman was ultimately fired on April 13, the lawsuit says.
In addition to the sexual assault and harassment, the woman alleges she was denied proper meal and rest breaks as required by California law.
The lawsuit requests damages according to proof of each cause of action, in addition to back pay, unpaid wages and additional punitive damages for violations of the labor code.
Taste denies all allegations, says woman’s account is ‘obvious lie’
According to Fink, all of the allegations in the lawsuit are false.
Fink said the woman and Santana had a “consensual sexual relationship” where they texted each other frequently and she would send him photos of herself at home.
He said the night at the hotel took place ”on their personal time off away from work.”
Fink said the woman’s story saying she felt compelled to do what her supervisor said for fear of losing her job and not being able to find a new one “doesn’t make sense.”
“This was a minimum-wage job,” he said. “She had phony papers and could have found another low-paying job.”
He said the statement that Santana told the woman they were going to coffee only to bring her to a hotel was “an obvious lie.”
Fink claims the woman knew the two were going to the hotel to have sex, adding there is no other explanation for going there.
“Her spider web of lies continues as she tries to explain away why she just didn’t leave,” Fink said. “Of course, she had a cell phone, but (in the lawsuit) claims she knew not a single person to call. She could have called 911, her daughters who moved from Colombia to the USA, her friends, roommate or any one of dozens of the contacts she surely had in her phone.”
Fink also said she could have gone to the receptionist of the hotel to ask them to call the police or an Uber or taxi.
“After the time spent in the motel room, she drove back with her supervisor, which is consistent with a consensual hookup,” Fink said. “If it was not consensual, surely she would not have driven back with him.”
Taste has a sexual harassment policy provided in the employee handbook, Fink said. He added the woman could have reported the alleged assault and harassment to the female human resources director or coworkers at any time.
Once Taste found out about the complaint and investigated it, Fink said, the woman was given a new supervisor.
“Taste cares deeply about its employees,” Fink said. “Had there been a sexual assault, to (the woman) or any victim, then Taste would have been supportive and compassionate, but this is not what happened here.”
He said when the woman was hired on Nov. 30, she filled out an I-9 form and W-4 form with false information, which “led Taste to believe that (she) was legally authorized to work in the United States.”
Fink said the woman was on payroll and that Taste provides translators for non-English-speaking employees.
On March 22, Fink said, the woman forwarded a notice to appear from the Department of Homeland Security for a deportation hearing on March 27.
Upon learning about her immigration status, he said, Taste requested the woman provide paperwork showing she could work in the country legally.
The restaurant asked the woman to provide documentation again on April 11, Fink said. When the woman said she couldn’t, she was terminated.
“She was told that if in the future she was lawfully allowed to work in the United States, she could reapply,” Fink said.
Fink said firing the woman was the only thing the restaurant could do after learning she was not legally permitted to work in the country.
Fink added that the harassment claims and ICE threats in the lawsuit are false.
How to get help
If you or someone you know are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-4673. Survivor support and resources are also available through Lumina Alliance at luminaalliance.org or their Crisis and Information Line at 805-545-8888.