Ex-manager at SLO Chipotle claims discrimination, labor law violations

A former manager of a local Chipotle Mexican Grill is suing the nationwide chain and her former supervisor for alleged racial discrimination, hour and wage violations, and being denied advancement opportunities.

She also is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit accusing the restaurant chain of skirting a variety of labor laws.

Claims made in a lawsuit represent only one side and have yet to be proved in court. As of Friday, Chipotle still had time to file its response to both lawsuits.

Janeka Samuels worked at both Chipotle restaurants in San Luis Obispo over the course of nearly four years and was a manager when she was terminated in August 2013.

In a lawsuit filed March 4 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, Samuels, who is African-American, claims that she and other employees endured daily harassment from her former supervisor, Ben DeBilzan.

The lawsuit alleges that Samuels was lobbying for timely breaks when DeBilzan said she should transfer to another location because “no one in this town is ever going to like you because you’re black.”

According to the lawsuit, when Samuels reported one incident to a general manager, she was told, ‘Well, you know, that’s Ben.’”

Samuels is suing the Denver-based chain and DeBilzen for an unspecified amount of general damages, wage loss and attorney fees.

DeBilzan could not be reached for comment Friday.

Chipotle’s attorney, Charles Cavanagh, painted Samuels as a disgruntled ex-employee.

“Janeka Samuels was a manager who was hired, mentored and developed by Ben DeBilzan,” Cavanagh wrote in an email response to The Tribune. “Ms. Samuels’ employment was terminated after several of her crew members complained about how she was treating them. Only thereafter did she file her lawsuit accusing Mr. DeBilzan of racism.”

Emails obtained by The Tribune show that Samuels took her alleged complaints to Chipotle co-CEO Montgomery Moran.

“When I first began my career at Chipotle we were taught to care about our people things (sic) have changed so much I am not sure if it’s the company or just do (sic) to our current leader,” Samuels wrote in a detailed Aug. 28 email to Moran. “I have seen so many good people come and go who were truly top performers do (sic) to being mistreated by Mr. DeBilzan.”

Samuels described regularly being denied breaks; being publicly cursed at by DeBilzan; an incident in which DeBilzan poured salt in an employee’s lemonade, causing the employee to vomit and later quit; and reporting the problems to the area’s human resources rep and nothing being done.

Moran replied: “Dear Janeka: The issues you describe very much concern me. I am going to ask (Human Resources Compliance and Project Director) David Gottlieb to follow up to learn more, so that we can ensure that your culture is representative of what we want at Chipotle!”

Samuels never heard from Gottlieb and was terminated shortly after.

Samuels’ San Luis Obispo-based attorney Jeff Stulberg said his client first approached him while she was still a Chipotle employee, seeking advice on hour and wage violations on behalf of herself and other employees.

Stulberg put her in touch with Los Angeles-based employment and civil rights attorney Mike Arias, who was preparing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Chipotle employees across the state for alleged labor violations.

That lawsuit was filed March 20 in Los Angeles County Superior Court with Samuels as one of the plaintiffs. The suit alleges that the chain misclassifies some managers as exempt from overtime pay and mandated meal breaks, and under reports wages earned by hourly employees, skirting state and federal taxes.

Following Samuels’ termination, Stulberg first filed a claim on her behalf with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which issued her a "right to sue" letter in November 2013.