Atlanta strippers stripped of rights?

Strippers have a right to fair labor practices, too. But some who danced at The Cheetah in Atlanta say they're being cheated.

A handful of former dancers at the high-profile strip club have filed suit in federal court in Atlanta and complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  For starters, they say the club got out of employer requirements like fair wages and hours by claiming it didn't employ dancers at all. Instead, the women were dubbed "contractors." Beyond that, they say their right to a jury trial on the issue is being quashed.

A few have put their names to the court complaint and they believe there are more than 100 others who were similarly wronged.  Their lawyer, Jim McDonough, said an average dancer could easily have $50,000 or $60,000 a year taken back by the club from her customer tips and fees (a figure the club's lawyer says "makes no sense").

Among other things, the dancers were required to "tip out" a percentage of their earnings from dances and special sessions to other staff in the club, such as disc jockeys, security floormen and "house moms" - the de facto supervisors. Dancers want the same legal treatment any worker would want, they say.

ATLANTA, GA -- The Cheetah, a high-profile Atlanta strip club. (RICH ADDICKS/AJC)

"Just because I'm a dancer doesn't mean I don't have a brain and a conscience," the lead plaintiff, Alison Valente, told the AJC.

"The dancers understand when they are engaged that it is customary in the industry to tip out certain personnel," the club's lawyer, Bennet Alsher, insisted.

Valente started the ball rolling, claiming she was fired this February for protesting illegal activities at the club.  The club denies illegality and says she was fired for other reasons.

But Alsher said going after clubs on the contractor-vs.-employee issue is just a product of greedy lawyers, "the cause du jour for the plaintiff's bar."

However, last year in a lawsuit involving a DeKalb strip club, a federal judge ruled that strip clubs must classify exotic dancers as employees, not contractors.

There's a more fundamental and timely question at play in the conflict. The dancers' complaints involve other issues, including one that has recently been on the front page of The New York Times and is increasingly touching most American lives:  arbitration.

The dancers claim that after Valente brought her complaints to the company in May and June, the Cheetah brought remaining dancers an arbitration agreement -- which would prevent their access to the traditional court system in case any disputes arose, as well as quash their ability to band together for class action suits, and asked them to sign.

The club says the timing was coincidental, tied to other events, and that in any case it already had an arbitration policy.

In arbitration, disputes don't go before a jury but before a paid professional, and there are far fewer rights.  Often the right of individuals to try and sue together as a class, spreading the costs of suing among a large group, is eliminated.

Arbitration is increasingly being adopted by businesses, by inserting a clause somewhere in the initial contract the customer or worker signs.  It's showing up in everything from cell phone agreements to employment paperwork.

Supporters of arbitration say that it's much faster and cheaper than a jury trial, and quashes ambulance chasing.  Opponents say that arbitration may well be cheaper for the business, but not for the individual when they're no longer able to band together with others in a class action suit.  And businesses often fear juries will be more sympathetic to an individual than an arbitrator will.

The New York Times this month published an investigation detailing the spread of arbitration over the last decade or so, and its impact on the little guy.  One federal judge appointed by Ronald Reagan called it ominous, "among the most profound shifts in our legal history."

While the judge in the Cheetah case decides whether to make the women give up on a jury trial and accept arbitration, the contractor issue is on hold.

The Cheetah makes money on its reputation--where the dancers are both the sales reps and the product attracting customers.  One website lists The Cheetah as having the area's "classiest" dancers.  If the dancers are merely contractors and not employees, the IRS says that means the club has the right to control only the result of their work, not how they do it.

Meanwhile, the court briefs between The Cheetah and the exotic dancers are flying back and forth.

One dancer said she was fired after not signing the agreement.  The club says no one was forced to sign and that dancer left the job of her own accord.  It's not entirely clear why the signature matters at all, since the 2015 document says they "agree" to the contract just by walking in the door and dancing.  Still, one of the club's legal filings says a pre-existing policy "requires all entertainers to agree" to the system.

Speaking in general, not specifically about the Cheetah, Alsher said it only made sense for businesses to support arbitration because they fear they won't get a fair shake from juries.

Neither the court suit nor the EEOC complaint has yet been decided.   Valente, petite and well spoken, is no longer dancing.  She says she took home at least $2,000 a night as a dancer, due to success delivering extras like table dances and VIP room sessions.  But she's looking to the future now.

So is Alsher. "The notion that these are poor workers who are downtrodden and fighting big business is ludicrous."

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About the Author

Ariel Hart
Ariel Hart
Ariel Hart is a reporter on health care issues. She works on the AJC’s politics team and has reported on subjects including the Voting Rights Act and transportation...