Google Sued for Sexual Harrassment by Massage Therapist

Google Sued for Sexual Harrassment by Massage Therapist Courtesy photo.

A lawsuit filed in Newark federal court alleges Google retaliated against an on-site massage therapist at the company’s New York office after he complained about unwanted advances from a company engineer.

Google put the plaintiff, Elvis Gardin, on a pretextual performance improvement plan after he complained about sexual harassment in the workplace, the suit said. Gardin was fired in May 2012, after four years on the job, in retaliation for his sexual harassment complaint and for taking leave to care for a sick relative, the suit alleged.

The suit brings claims under the New York City Human Rights Law and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, and names as defendants two officials in Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters: Gardin’s supervisor, Michelle Hocking, and human resources manager Jenny Byrn Guinan.

As a gay male, Gardin is a member of a protected class under the NYCHRL, the suit said.

Gardin complained to superiors that he received unwanted sexual advances from a male Google engineer who once engaged in masturbation during a massage session at the company’s New York office, the suit said.

“It is our allegation that, if a female employee had made the kind of complaint that he made, it would have been handled differently,” said Andrew Clark, the plaintiff’s lawyer.

Gardin is a Middlesex County resident and venue is proper because he lived in New Jersey when the events giving rise to the suit occurred, the suit claims. Google conducts significant business in New Jersey and is therefore subject to jurisdiction in the state, the suit says.

The engineer was not identified in court papers and Clark, of Tobin, Kessler, Greenstein, Caruso, Wiener & Konray in Clark, declined to identify him.

When Gardin took leave to care for his sick mother, the defendants engaged in willful acts of retaliation and harassment, making him eligible for liquidated damages under the FMLA, the suit claims.

He said he was replaced by a heterosexual female, giving rise to an intentional discrimination claim under the NYCHRL. After he complained about the harassment, the defendants forced Gardin to continue to interact with his harasser, he said in his sexual harassment claim under the NYCHRL. And he was targeted by “false and malicious write-ups” that culminated in the performance improvement plan, Gardin said in his retaliation claim under the NYCHRL.

The suit seeks compensatory damages for Gardin’s loss in wages and benefits and the emotional distress he suffered. Gardin is also seeking punitive damages as well as liquidated damages, attorney fees and costs. In addition, he is seeking an order requiring the company to give him good references and to purge his personnel file of the events complained of in the suit.

A Google spokesman, Matt Kallman, said the company would not comment on the suit.

Gardin is now working as a self-employed massage therapist, Clark said. He holds a New York state massage therapist license and is certified in prenatal and perinatal massage, according to his LinkedIn page.

Google is known for its generous fringe benefits, which includes free meals in company cafeterias, as well as free haircuts and low-cost massages. New Google employees, known inside the company as “Nooglers,” receive a coupon on their first day of work offering a free, one-hour table massage, Babette Villasenor, the manager of the company’s massage program, said in a YouTube video.

According to the video, the company has “massages going in multiple massage rooms, eight hours a day, five days a week,” and employs 35 massage therapists in the United States. According to the video, Google is hiring more massage therapists with the goal of tripling the number of massages given to employees per week. Google employees can choose from massage methods that include chair, table, prenatal, Thai, integrated awareness and cranial-sacral therapy, the video said.

Contact the reporter at ctoutant@alm.com.

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