A former employee of a Santa Clarita Panda Express is suing the restaurant chain, alleging that she was forced to participate in what “resembled a cult initiation ritual,” according to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court last month.
The incident occurred at a 2019 training seminar where the plaintiff, a 23-year-old woman, was told to “hug it out” with a co-worker while wearing nothing but their underwear, per the complaint.
She is now suing Panda Restaurant Group, as well as Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, for sexual battery, a hostile work environment, failure to prevent harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She’s seeking unspecified damages. The woman is named in the lawsuit but her name is being withheld from this story due to the nature of the allegations.
Plaintiff ‘pushed’ into attending seminar
The plaintiff began working for Panda Express, located on the 26400 block of Bouquet Canyon Road, in 2016, and though the complaint alleges she was “subjected to difficult and harsh conditions,” she said she was eager to move up within the employee ranks.
In 2019, the store manager told the plaintiff she needed to complete a “self-improvement” seminar run by Alive Seminars to be considered for a promotion, the complaint states.
“Panda Express pushed its employees in the Los Angeles region to complete Alive Seminars training,” the lawsuit stated. “Alive Seminars served – in essence – as an extension of Panda Express’ own Human Resources department.”
The “Panda-sponsored” seminar was held in a warehouse in L.A. in July 2019 where every person in attendance was a Panda Express employee and received seminar materials featuring the Panda Express logo, the complaint alleges.
‘Abuse and harassment at seminar’
From the start, the seminar was allegedly “bizarre and quickly devolved into psychological abuse,” according to the lawsuit.
After being left in isolation for an hour with instructions to “sit down and not talk” at the start of the seminar, an Alive Seminars employee stormed in, berating participants individually for doing just that and resembling a “nasty drill sergeant,” per the complaint.
Much of the seminar continued in the same manner, with participants prohibited from using their cell phones, no clock in the room, and the doors and windows all covered with black cloth, the lawsuit alleges.
“The atmosphere resembled less a self-improvement seminar than a site for off- the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects,” the lawsuit stated. “The sensory isolation and intimidation was reinforced by constant yelling and verbal abuse by seminar staff, creating an atmosphere of fear in the room.”
Even so, participants, including the plaintiff, allegedly felt they had no choice but to continue attending, as they believed their opportunity for promotion depended on it.
During one exercise, the plaintiff was allegedly forced to strip down to her underwear under the guise of “trust-building,” while “Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing,” per the complaint.
Under dimmed lights, “one of the Alive Seminars staff had a cell phone with the light on, recording plaintiff in her state of undress,” the lawsuit continued.
As the seminar progressed, it more and more resembled a cult initiation ritual until the victim allegedly had had enough and made an excuse of a family emergency to exit, leaving “scarred and downtrodden,” the lawsuit alleges.
Panda ‘conducts investigation’ into allegations
Officials with Panda Restaurant Group said they take the plaintiff’s allegations very seriously and have conducted an investigation.
“We do not condone the kind of behavior (the plaintiff) has alleged took place at Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, and we would not intentionally allow it to occur within or on behalf of our organization,” a statement from the company read.
Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy is a third-party organization in which Panda has no ownership interest and over which it exercises no control, Panda officials said.
Panda Restaurant Group officials also denied “mandating” that any associate participate in Alive Seminars, nor that participation is a requirement to earn promotions.
“We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect,” the statement continued. “As an active legal matter, we are unable to comment further.”
Following the incident at the seminar, the lawsuit alleges that Panda Express “didn’t care” about the plaintiff’s experiences.
“(Her) working conditions had become intolerable and Panda Express had no interest in addressing the situation,” the lawsuit stated, adding that with her chances of promotion destroyed, she quit in July 2019 due to the emotional distress.
Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy officials were not available for comment as of the publication of this article.
A hearing for the case is scheduled July 6 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse.