Libertine Brewing Co. fostered ‘frat house environment,’ ex-manager says in lawsuit

Update Sept. 11, 2:30 p.m.: Libertine Brewing Company co-owner Eric Newton late Wednesday afternoon sent the following message in response to the original article. The message is on behalf of Newton and Libertine Brewing Co. management:

“In response to the recent San Luis Obispo Tribune article regarding a lawsuit filed against Libertine Brewing Company and one of its owners, Libertine and its management team feel the need to respond. To be clear, Libertine denies all of the allegations contained in the lawsuit and maintains that all of the claims being made by an employee that worked for Libertine over two years ago are completely false.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, often times when a mere and false allegation is made and published, too many rush to judgment without hearing both sides of the story and weighing the evidence. Today, we ask that before you rush to judgment, that you allow us to respond and let us present our story in court. Similarly, even though we disagree with her position, our accuser is entitled to state her case. As a result, we ask that everyone treat her fairly and respectfully during this process. In addition, we truly appreciate the multiple people that have reached out in support of Libertine and its management team, including many other employers that have been faced with the same situation. This is not to minimize those that have truly been harassed because we know that happens often. Harassment should not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form. To be clear, Libertine has absolutely zero tolerance for harassment and/or discrimination of any kind now and in the past.

Contrary to what has been alleged, Libertine has always promoted a safe, fair, and harassment free working environment. We have good employees that do such a wonderful job and we don’t want anything negative to reflect on them and/or hurt their families. In fact, three of the owners’ daughters have worked at Libertine, so the last thing we would want to have is our own daughters work in a bad and/or unsafe working environment. These false claims are hurtful and unjust as Libertine and its owners have always tried to empower women and put them in leadership rolls. We also value diversity which is reflected by our diverse team that includes individuals of all ethnicities and sexual orientations.

We again respectfully ask our Community to reflect on the history of Libertine’s owners’ outstanding involvement in the community and reputation by allowing us to have our day in court and allow the truth to come out. Thank you again for your understanding and support.”

Original story: A former employee of Libertine Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo alleges that senior management fostered a “frat house environment” and subjected her to inappropriate touching and sexual harassment.

The brewery’s former restaurant manager filed a lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Friday, naming the business and co-owner Eric Newton as defendants for alleged quid pro quo sexual harassment, sexual battery, sex discrimination and creating a hostile work environment.

Lawsuits represent just one side of the story and attorneys for the business have not yet had an opportunity to file a response.

Newton said by phone Monday that though he had not yet read the lawsuit, he was informed of its content through discussions with legal counsel and called the allegations “unfortunate.”

“From what conversations we’ve had, these are just allegations,” Newton said. “All I can say now is that the owners, we strongly disagree (with the lawsuit) and deny any wrongdoing.”

The ex-employee, Catelyn Willig, says in the complaint that she was an experienced beer industry professional when she was hired by Libertine Brewing Co. in January 2016 at the business’ then-newly opened San Luis Obispo location near the corner of Broad and Pacific streets.

The complaint states that as part of her job, Willig curated bottle shares, gave tours of the brewery “and was well-respected by Libertine’s patrons for her deep knowledge of its dozens of draught beers.”

When she was promoted from tasting room manager to restaurant manager later that year, Willig discussed her goal of opening her own brewery several times with the business’ owners, who at the time supported and encouraged her plans, the lawsuit says.

“However, although Ms. Willig was promoted, well-liked, and at times encouraged, Libertine’s all-male senior management fostered a frat house environment,” the complaint reads.

Specifically, the lawsuit claims that a co-owner “frequently drew images of penises throughout the facility, including on dusty areas, beer barrels, windows, the delivery truck, wall murals, chalkboards, the floor, and even ‘hidden’ in such places as the entrance sign smiley face.”

When she objected to and erased the images, Willig was accused of “not getting the joke,” the complaint states.

Managers would often comment on women’s physical appearances in Willig’s presence, including which job interviewees they wanted to sleep with, and male staffers “took their cues from management and regularly called each other ‘gay,’ ‘fags,’ and ‘homos, ’” the complaint states.

On one occasion, when Willig suggested the business purchase another point-of-sale system rather than a ninth television set, the general manager “bluntly told her she did not understand because ‘you’re a woman,” the complaint reads.

Willig claims that Newton was aware and approved of the behavior, and additionally began to foster an inappropriate romantic interest in her, touching her shoulders, waist and lower back. On one occasion, he “squeezed Ms. Willig’s butt,” the filing states.

In another incident while she was working on a busy Saint Patrick’s Day in 2017, Newton allegedly “spanked” the employee.

“Ms. Willig was shocked that Mr. Newton had so brazenly violated her at work,” the complaint reads. “She felt small, weak and powerless.”

Willig allegedly reviewed Libertine’s surveillance system and recorded a video of the incident on her phone. She put in her two-weeks’ notice shortly thereafter.

Newton and another senior manager avoided Willig during her final weeks at the business, the lawsuit says, but after closing one night, the senior manager, who had been drinking heavily, complained that “she was making a big deal” out of Newton’s conduct.

“(He said) Ms. Willig should be able to overlook Mr. Newton’s behavior, since Mr. Newton might one day fund a brewery for her, too,” the complaint reads.

Her last day of employment was March 31, 2017, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Newton “has engaged in similar sexually inappropriate behavior with at least one other Libertine employee.”

Willig says the business has caused and continues to cause her severe emotional distress, pain and suffering and “substantial economic damage.”

She is seeking an unspecified amount of damages and recovery of attorney and court costs.

Founded by Tyler Clark, Libertine Brewing Co. started in 2012 with a brewpub in Morro Bay and opened the 9,000-square-foot production and tasting space in downtown San Luis Obispo in 2015. The business opened a third location in Avila Beach in 2018.

Court records show a case management conference has been scheduled for Jan. 2 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a response from Libertine Brewing Co. co-owner Eric Newton.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.