Photo courtesy of Panda Express

A woman who alleges she was forced to strip to her underwear and hug another undressed co-worker as part of a team-building activity while working at a Panda Express restaurant in Santa Clarita wants the remainder of her case removed from arbitration now that the restaurant chain has been dismissed as a defendant.

In court papers filed Wednesday, attorneys for plaintiff Jennifer Spargifiore maintain the final defendant in the case, self-improvement consulting company Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, had nothing to do with the terms of employment agreements she signed in 2016 and 2018 in which she said she would arbitrate disputes. Those agreements had prompted Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elaine Lu to send Spargifiore’s entire case into arbitration in July 2021.

In their new court papers filed with Lu, Spargifiore’s lawyers note that the arbitrator, retired Judge B. Scott Silverman, also found that there was no “agency relationship” between Panda and Alive and that therefore, the remainder of the plaintiff’s case alleging sexual battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress should be decided by a jury.

“Here, Ms. Spargifiore never agreed to an arbitration agreement with defendant Alive,” the plaintiff’s lawyers state in their court papers. “This is not disputed by any party.”

A hearing on Spargifiore’s motion is scheduled Sept. 13.

In her suit filed in February 2021, Spargifiore, now 25, alleged the 2019 incident was part of a trust-building activity hosted by Panda Express and the self-improvement consulting company Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy. Her manager allegedly told her that the seminar was required to be considered for a promotion.

The lawsuit states that the plaintiff worked at the Santa Clarita Panda Express from August 2016 to July 2019 and described the sessions as “bizarre and quickly devolved into psychological abuse.”

The incident in question happened July 13, 2019, where Spargifiore participated in an exercise wherein she was forced to strip to her underwear under the guise of trust-building, according to the lawsuit.

“The seminar more and more resembled a cult initiation ritual as time went on,” the lawsuit states.

Spargifiore went into the seminar “hopeful and optimistic about her future at Panda Express. She left it three days later scarred and downtrodden,” the suit states.

Panda Express told her to attend the seminar and made it clear that any promotion depended on it, according to the suit. Panda Express, however, did not care about Spargifiore’s experience at Alive Seminars or that she had been humiliated in front of her co-workers, the suit alleges.

“Her chances of promotion were destroyed,” the suit states. “She had been forced to strip in front of her co-workers.”

Spargifiore’s work conditions became intolerable and she was forced to resign as a result in July 2019, her suit alleges.

The fast-food eatery’s parent company, Panda Restaurant Group, previously said it had launched its own investigation into Spargifiore’s allegations.

“We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us,” the statement read.

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