The famous Atlanta strip club the Cheetah Lounge has settled a series of lawsuits filed by former dancers claiming unfair labor practices and a dangerous environment where dancers were subjected to sexual harassment and assault.
In a joint statement issued with principal litigant and former dancer Alison Valente, the Cheetah did not accept any blame but acknowledged making changes to the midtown club to create a safer and more equitable environment.
“While the Cheetah does not by this settlement admit any liability, we have carefully considered the concerns raised by Ms. Valente and have made certain changes to our practices to avoid any appearance of impropriety, including converting the doors of our VIP rooms from frosted to clear glass, eliminating the ‘Penthouse’ at the club, and reclassifying our dancers as hourly employees,” the club’s portion of the statement read.
Court records show the Cheetah paid out at least $3.4 million in back wages, damages and attorney fees in to settle claims made by nearly 100 dancers. Settlements with former employees averaged around $22,000 but ranged from $2,000 to $110,000. Valente settled her separate claims for an undisclosed amount.
“I learned a lot. The journey has grown me a lot,” Valente said. “Looking back, I never expected to be a whistle blower, but I’m glad that I stood up for my rights.”
Valente said she views the lawsuits as a victory for women’s rights. “I think that women have endured far too much for too long,” she said.
Through their attorney, representatives of the Cheetah declined further comment.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News two years ago published a joint investigation looking into the claims of former Cheetah dancers who said the club’s practice of reserving VIP rooms put them in danger of sexual assault. The dancers said the high-dollar private rooms were controlled by security guards who placed customers with select dancers who were willing to break the Cheetah’s rules against sexual contact in exchange for a percentage of the fee.
The dancers who spoke to the AJC said they had all been groped and assaulted by customers who had come to expect sexual contact in the rooms. One dancer said she was raped.
Lawyers for the club denied the accusations, but in a 2015 filing with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the club admitted a “custom” of dancers tipping security guards for access to the rooms.
In response to the allegations of sexual assault, the club’s lawyers vowed to bring forward other dancers to refute the claims. The AJC waited months, but no dancer came forward. Instead, the club banned the practice of tipping security guards and removed the doors from the private VIP rooms.
Still, Cheetah attorneys claimed Valente and others were using allegations of assault to bolster their separate legal claim for back wages.
Traditionally, clubs like the Cheetah have categorized their entertainers as contractors rather than employees, which means they don’t have to pay them a straight salary or benefits. As a result, exotic dancers largely work for tips and the money they make from dancing varies wildly.
In recent years, dancers have sued nude dancing clubs across the nation claiming the arrangement violates federal labor laws by treating them like employees by assigning them shifts, holding them accountable for in-house rules, and requiring them to hand over a certain portion of their tips to other staff.
In multiple lawsuits, Valente claimed the club and its octogenarian owner, Bill Hagood, were engaged in organized crime that involved “illegal activities, including a pattern of sexual abuse, assault, harassment, drug distribution and sale, prostitution, attempted rape, racketeering, illegal drugging, pimping and pandering.” As part of her settlement, Valente dropped those charges and both sides signed a “non-disparagement” agreement.
The AJC contacted some other Cheetah dancers who took part in the litigation and were part of a mass settlement last year. Some said they were disillusioned with the process and felt used by Valente and the lawyers who negotiated the payouts. But others said they would do it again if it meant enacting some changes in an industry they believe mistreats its entertainers.
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