As first reported by Houstonia Magazine, a former Underbelly server has filed a lawsuit against the popular Houston restaurant and its fellow award-winning eatery The Pass & Provisions, alleging "tortious interference, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress."
According to court documents filed on November 13, the server, Rachel Johnston, was employed by Underbelly's chef/owner Chris Shepherd at his restaurant Catalan, and then joined Shepherd at Underbelly when it opened, in February 2012. On one of her nights off in late November 2012, Johnston joined some girlfriends for dinner at The Pass & Provisions. Toward the end of their meal, they were asked to vacate their table in order to make room for other patrons to be seated. One of Johnston's friends did not appreciate being asked to move when other diners were allowed to remain seated, so she "vociferously complained" to the staff.
Johnston alleges that she apologized to the staff about her friend's outburst. The staff at The Pass & Provisions later learned that Johnston worked for Underbelly, and the next morning someone from the restaurant contacted Shepherd to complain about the incident. Because of this, Johnston claims, she was reprimanded and asked to quit her job. When she refused to quit, she was placed on unpaid suspension for two weeks.
Johnston came back to work after the suspension and says she was met with hostility by the kitchen and front-of-house staff. Underbelly co-owner Kevin Floyd had warned Johnston that if she came back the work environment would not be pleasant, but no one could legally fire her for the incident at The Pass & Provisions.
On December 21, Johnston worked a lunch shift, but when she came back to Underbelly for the dinner shift, she says, she was fired. She was informed that she was being terminated for being drunk during her earlier shift, which is a violation of the restaurant's alcohol policy. Johnston maintains that she had not been drinking on the job and alleges that "Underbelly management condoned and supported a culture where employees, bartenders and managers would consume alcoholic beverages on the job," including shotgunning beers in the kitchen after most dinner shifts.
Johnston has also filed a discrimination suit against her former employer, alleging "disparaging comments about women and/or remarks laden with sexual innuendo." She claims Shepherd asked her questions about her sex life and offered to engage in sexual activities with her, albeit jokingly. She believes she was discriminated against for being female, and that Underbelly "failed to provide its female employees a level playing field in the workplace, but instead fostered an environment of perverse behavior, sexist remarks and hostility to women."
As a result of the "tortious interference" by The Pass & Provisions and the defamation and "intentional infliction of emotional distress" by both Underbelly and The Pass & Provisions, Johnston is seeking damages of "over $200,000, but not more than $1,000,000."
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A representative for Underbelly provided us with the following statement about the lawsuit:
It's not unheard of for high-profile restaurants like ours to be subject to lawsuits of this kind. We hope that outside observers don't jump to conclusions. This employee was terminated for intoxication at work, which is in line with company policy and legal standings. We regrettably terminated an employee with whom we had a longstanding and close relationship for behavior and misconduct inside the restaurant.
Neither Johnston, her attorney nor a representative from The Pass & Provisions could be reached for comment.
This is the second time Underbelly has been in the headlines this week. Earlier, we reported that sous chef Ryan Lachaine had left his post at the restaurant. Representatives for Underbelly said that the two incidents were unrelated.