62°F
weather icon Clear

Topgolf lawsuit: Workers faced years of unchecked sexual harassment

Updated April 5, 2021 - 8:35 am

A new lawsuit claims sexual harassment and abuse run rampant in Topgolf’s Las Vegas kitchen, where women routinely work in oversized clothing to conceal their bodies and workers joke that “you have to rape someone” to be promoted.

Silvino Hinojosa, a former Topgolf Las Vegas sous chef, hides his face during an October court ...
Silvino Hinojosa, a former Topgolf Las Vegas sous chef, hides his face during an October court hearing at the Regional Justice Center in one of two pending sexual assault cases against him. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye

The 24-page lawsuit, filed in Clark County District Court on behalf of three former Topgolf Las Vegas kitchen employees, fits an emerging pattern of allegations that have surfaced in recent years against the well-known sports entertainment company. Court records show that it is at least the fourth lawsuit accusing Topgolf of pervasive sexual harassment in the workplace and marks the second filed in Nevada by attorney James J. Lee.

Since 2016, Lee has said, at least five individuals — four of whom are named plaintiffs in the Nevada lawsuits — have come forward with allegations of assault and harassment by former Topgolf Las Vegas sous chef Silvino Hinojosa. All five worked under Hinojosa’s direct supervision.

“It takes tremendous moral courage to come forward with these allegations, and it is my hope that this process can play a role in helping these survivors reclaim some of what was taken away from them,” Lee told the Review-Journal.

Hinojosa, 39, is described in the Nevada lawsuits as a serial sexual predator who “leveraged his power” over low-level employees, many of them immigrant women.

(Clark County District Court lawsuit)
(Clark County District Court lawsuit)

According to the lawsuits, a “frat boy” culture among company executives and kitchen managers protected Hinojosa, allowing him to remain at the center of the kitchen’s “dehumanizing, toxic work environment” between April 2016, when the flagship opened, and May 2018, when he was terminated.

Now, in addition to the lawsuits, Hinojosa is awaiting trial at the Clark County Detention Center in two sexual assault cases — one of which involves a 4-year-old girl and the other a former Topgolf pastry chef. He is being held on $100,000 bail in both cases.

If convicted in either case, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Hinojosa appeared in court as recently as Wednesday morning for a hearing that ultimately was postponed. His attorney, Patricia Doyle, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment, was expected to argue for Hinojosa’s release on his own recognizance pending the trial in the pastry chef’s attack. He has been in custody since July 2019, jail records show.

An emerging pattern

Topgolf declined to comment on specific details of the Nevada lawsuits, citing ongoing litigation, but in a statement to the Review-Journal said the allegations “certainly are not representative or reflective of Topgolf, our associates or our culture.”

“Let us be clear that any type of harassment has absolutely no place at Topgolf, and we have robust policies and procedures in place that prohibit this type of behavior,” the statement continues, adding that “Topgolf has always been and remains committed to ensuring and cultivating a safe and welcoming environment for our associates and our guests.”

But according to the latest lawsuit, Topgolf routinely failed to enforce its anti-sexual harassment and discrimination policies during Hinojosa’s employment. Through its human resources department, the lawsuit claims, the company “engaged in a tacit, sometimes overt conspiracy to harbor and protect Hinojosa” by destroying and concealing both written and verbal reports made by his accusers.

A review of federal lawsuits filed since 2016 against the company, which operates more than 60 locations across the United States, revealed two other cases with strikingly similar accusations to those detailed in the Nevada lawsuits. Both cases were settled, records show.

(U.S. District Court lawsuit in Michigan)
(U.S. District Court lawsuit in Michigan)

In one of the cases, a woman employed at the Oklahoma City flagship said she was sexually assaulted in February 2016 by an executive sous chef, who offered her a ride home after an evening shift. Once at the woman’s home, according to the lawsuit, the sous chef “forced his way into her home.”

Less than three months later, the woman was fired — 10 days after reporting the assault to the flagship’s director of operations, according to the lawsuit.

Her attorney, Rochelle Owens, said the case stands out in her long career of discrimination and labor litigation.

“I believe the protection that (the suspect) was afforded was certainly alarming,” she told the Review-Journal. “The company kind of circled the wagon to protect him while my client was separated from the company. Most companies cut their losses when something as serious as that is alleged, and it was unfortunate that Topgolf did not make that decision.”

(U.S. District Court lawsuit in Michigan)
(U.S. District Court lawsuit in Michigan)

Meanwhile, at a Topgolf flagship outside Detroit, a 19-year-old food runner said she was subjected to sexual harassment — including lewd comments and unwanted touching — by two colleagues starting in December 2018.

The woman complained multiple times to various members of upper management, the Michigan lawsuit states, but management “did nothing to take corrective action or remedial measures to stop the harassment.”

‘A hypersexualized business’

It’s likely the lawsuits don’t show the full picture, said Anthony Advincula of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit advocating for better wages and working conditions for kitchen workers.

“What about undocumented workers?” he said. “What about those who are scared of retaliation, whether it’s soft or blatant retaliation?”

But the same can be said of the restaurant industry as a whole.

“In my line of work, I hear stories like this every day,” Advincula said, noting that the restaurant industry has long been “a hypersexualized business.”

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the restaurant and hospitality industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims filed by women, who make up the majority of the restaurant workforce.

Last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women accounted for nearly 55 percent of industry workers. That figure jumps to 58 percent for food preparation workers, 67 percent for fast food employees and 70 percent for waitresses.

In 2014, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United surveyed nearly 700 current and former restaurant workers in 39 states about sexual harassment and abuse in the industry.

The study found that 66 percent of female restaurant workers have been sexually harassed by restaurant management, 74 percent by colleagues and 59 percent by customers. Those who participated in the study also described sexual harassment as “part of the culture” in restaurant settings.

Elba Servin, a former Topgolf Las Vegas prep cook, says sous chef Silvino Hinojosa lured her to a vacant home in June 2016 after work and raped her. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
A year after Servin’s alleged rape, her colleague, Ciara Williams, says she was sexually assaulted at work by the same sous chef inside a walk-in freezer in the Topgolf Las Vegas kitchen. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

‘Swept under the rug’

In Las Vegas, the most serious allegations against Hinojosa include luring Elba Servin, a prep cook, to a vacant home and raping her in June 2016 and assaulting Ciara Williams, a pastry chef, inside a walk-in freezer in Topgolf’s kitchen a year later.

Both women, with the help and encouragement of colleague Brian Gomez, reported their assaults to Topgolf management. But “nothing was done to protect Servin, Williams, or the other female kitchen workers at Topgolf LV from Hinojosa,” the latest lawsuit states.

Instead, in October 2017, months after the alleged walk-in freezer attack, Hinojosa was promoted. His eventual termination came shortly after two other kitchen employees filed formal complaints against Hinojosa with MGM Resorts, Topgolf’s lessor.

Brian Gomez, a previous kitchen employee at Topgolf, is among four former employees suing Topgo ...
Brian Gomez, a previous kitchen employee at Topgolf, is among four former employees suing Topgolf Las Vegas, accusing the company of harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @ellenschmidttt

Meanwhile, the lawsuit claims, Gomez was labeled a “snitch” among kitchen management for helping Servin and Williams, and he, too, began to experience harassment by Hinojosa that included inappropriate name-calling and threats about his employment.

“I never thought anyone would care about my story,” he told the Review-Journal last week. “I thought it would get swept under the rug.”

He eventually was fired for a timecard mistake that amounted to 35 extra minutes of work, contradicting Topgolf’s progressive discipline policies. The lawsuit claims the company terminated Gomez in retaliation for his vocal opposition against Hinojosa.

Gomez started a new job at Caesars Palace but was laid off when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Las Vegas Strip to shut down. He has been out of work since.

“I’m getting by for now,” Gomez said, “and I thank God every day.”

For Servin, the lawsuit marks the beginning to an end in this chapter of her life. She reported her assault to Las Vegas police on March 2.

On a recent Friday afternoon, she sat outside her North Las Vegas home, smoking a cigar. Tears welled in her eyes.

“It feels like something is going,” Servin said of her pain, placing her left hand over her heart. “But something is coming, too.”

She hopes that means she is healing.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST