In early 2018, a former waitress at the Galleria outpost of South African restaurant Peli Peli filed a lawsuit against the chain, alleging that she was sexually harassed by executive chef Paul Friedman. In April, the case is set to go before a Harris County judge.
The suit filed by Madeline Mirza alleges that Friedman “drunkenly sexually assaulted Mirza in the restaurant where she worked” on multiple occasions while she was an employee of the restaurant in 2017, and that when she complained to human resources, the company “blew her off.” In the suit, Mirza claims that Friedman groped and kissed her without her consent on more than one occasion, in front of diners and her co-workers.
Mirza further alleges that when she reported the incident to Peli Peli human resources employee Angelica Vergara, the company did not take appropriate action in handling multiple allegations of harassment from Friedman. “Ms. Mirza called Vergara and told her what happened. Vergara sounded peeved and started raising her voice,” reads Mirza’s complaint in part. “Vergara said there was no real evidence and it was just from her word of mouth, which is unreliable. The whole conversation sounded like Vergara wanted to push the entire situation under the rug.” She also says in the complaint that the company retaliated against her for making the allegation by cancelling a transfer that she’d requested to Peli Peli’s location in Katy.
In the suit, Mirza is seeking both back pay and either reinstatement or “front pay,” the equivalent to “future lost earnings,” along with damages related to her emotional pain and suffering. Prior to filing the lawsuit, Mirza says that she filed a claim with the Texas Workforce Commission’s Civil Rights & Discrimination division, which handles claims of harassment and discrimination state-wide. Mirza’s attorney Mark Oberti declined to comment further on the pending litigation.
Last April, attorneys for Peli Peli responded to Mirza’s allegations. In a written answer filed with the Harris County District Court, both Friedman and Peli Peli generally deny Mirza’s claims of sexual harassment while insisting that the restaurant “exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior.” Going further, the response claims that Mirza “consented to contact, specifically a hug,” with Friedman, and that no other contact between the two occurred.
Friedman and the company also say that they did not retaliate against Mirza by refusing to transfer her to another location, and that the decision to refuse her request was related to “legitimate, nonretaliatory business reasons.”
In response to a request for comment, owner Thomas Nguyen tells Eater that “both Peli Peli and Paul vehemently deny any and all allegations,” and that the case is currently in litigation. In a follow-up email to Eater, Nguyen said that he “would never be part of a company that treated females, or anyone for that matter, in an inappropriate manner,” and noted Peli Peli’s history of hiring women into executive positions at the company.
Mirza’s case is scheduled for trial on April 15.