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O’Farrell Theatre wronged its dancers, judge says; Reimbursement Could Run Into Millions

SAN FRANCISCO — The Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theatre acted illegally when it set a nightly quota on the money its exotic dancers were to bring in that was so strict that many of the women were forced to reach into their own purses to meet the required amount, a judge has ruled.

A lawyer for the dancers said his clients are in line for millions of dollars in damages after Superior Court Judge Mary Wiss issued the ruling last month in a suit filed by about 370 past and present dancers at the club on O’Farrell Street. But a lawyer for the club said that when all the evidence is in, the dancers might end up owing their employer money that they collected from customers and failed to report.

Wiss also said the club must reimburse dancers for the cost of the theme-oriented costumes they were required to wear before disrobing. Further proceedings on damages are scheduled in her court next month.

The case is part of a long-running dispute over wages for performers at the city’s strip clubs. A 1998 court ruling upheld claims by O’Farrell dancers that they were employees covered by wage and hour laws, rather than independent contractors who had to negotiate their own terms. That issue remains unresolved at some other clubs.

Wiss’s ruling last month was the result of a follow-up suit, filed in 2002, that challenged the O’Farrell’s system of paying dancers based on the fees they received from customers for lap dances and performances in private booths after the main show. The club — which posted a “suggested” fee of $20 for lap dances and $40 for private performances, in addition to the admission charge — set a quota of $360 a night for each employee, and allowed her to keep half that amount in addition to any sums she received in tips.

Although the O’Farrell said the system was flexible, Wiss said evidence at a non-jury trial earlier this year showed that dancers felt pressured to meet the quota each night to keep their jobs, and sometimes used their own money and tips to make up any shortfall.

The club “took money from dancers to meet the quota,” in violation of state regulations that apply to strip clubs, the judge said. She said the employees were entitled to recover any amounts they could show they paid to fill their quotas, minus any amounts the employer could show the dancers had collected but failed to report.

Wiss also said the club was required to reimburse dancers for the cost of dressing up in specific attire — like a showgirl in one room, a nurse or a policewoman in another — before taking it off during a performance. Those costumes can be considered uniforms, which must be supplied by the employer, except for those that could also be used at other clubs, Wiss said.

The dancers’ lawyer, James Quadra, said the quota was nearly impossible to meet on most nights and probably cost dancers $100 or more per shift, a cumulative loss of millions of dollars over the four years covered by the suit. Expenses for the costumes could also reach $1 million, plus interest, he said.

Lawyers for the club argued in court papers that quotas in the exotic dance industry have been upheld and that there was no credible evidence that dancers had to dip into their own money to meet their quotas or keep their jobs. Attorney Donna Rutter said Wednesday that the dancers would have difficulty proving their alleged losses and might even owe the club money.

The employer believes that “they cheated the theater, lied in terms of the number of dances they did, to keep the dance fees” without reporting them, she said.


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