A 63-year-old former longtime server at the El Torito restaurant in West Covina has agreed to binding arbitration of her claims against the Mexican food restaurant chain’s parent company, in which she alleges she was wrongfully fired earlier this year because of her age and for taking time off after she contracted the coronavirus.
In her lawsuit filed June 3 in Pomona Superior Court against FM Restaurants HQ LLC, plaintiff Laura Christie claimed causes of action that included wrongful termination, disability and age discrimination, retaliation, failure to prevent discrimination and retaliation, failure to engage in the interactive process and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In court papers filed Monday with Judge Thomas R. Falls, both sides said they wish to move the case from the courtroom to an arbitrator and are asking that the lawsuit be put on hold in the interim. The restaurant attorneys maintain that when Christie signed her employment agreement, she agreed to arbitrate any disputes.
According to the suit, from January 2020 through February 2022, the defendants “engaged in concerted efforts to socially and physically ostracize plaintiff from her employment with defendants and either force her to quit or manufacture a reason to fire her.”
Christie was hired at El Torito in 2000 and her server duties included welcoming guests, taking food and beverage orders and ensuring food and beverages were delivered in a timely manner, the suit states. She was paid $14 an hour when she was fired, the suit states.
“For nearly the first two decades of her employment with (El Torito), plaintiff was treated well by defendants,” the suit states. “However, as soon as (Christie) reached the age 61, she was subjected to harassment and discrimination on account of her age.”
In early 2020, managers at the Garvey Avenue eatery made comments that included, “You’re too old,” “You’re getting old” and “You need to retire,” the suit states. The coronavirus pandemic started about that time and it was used as an excuse to reduce Christie’s weekly work schedule to two days, the suit alleges.
Christie tested positive for COVID-19 in August 2021 and had life-threatening symptoms related to her age and preexisting medical conditions, so she contacted the restaurant’s general the manager and informed him, the suit states. He told her to rest and let him know when she tested negative, according to the suit.
Chrisite was subsequently admitted to Pomona Valley Medical Center, was diagnosed with COVID-19-induced pneumonia and later underwent a plasma infusion and lung booster injection, according to the suit.
Christie tested negative on Sept. 1, 2021, and told the general manager, who said he would schedule her return to work later that month, the suit states. After not hearing anything from the restaurant, she contacted the manager and asked to be put back on the work schedule, to which he answered, “OK,” the suit states.
Christie did not hear anything more from the restaurant until she received a Jan. 28 email stating that due to her failing to show up for two scheduled work days in July, “We take that as your resignation,” the suit states. However, the general manager subsequently told her that there was a greater demand for employees to work evening shifts and that the plaintiff was being fired because she could only work in the daytime, the suit states.
The story changed yet again during a subsequent meeting with a human resources representative who told Christie she was being fired for a “no show” months earlier, even though the plaintiff provided documentation of communications between her and the manager and general manager regarding her health since her last day of work on July 7, 2021, the suit states.
Christie alleges the real reasons she was fired were related to her age, her acquiring of the coronavirus and for taking sick leave and requesting accommodations, the suit states.