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Massage therapists sue Grand Del Mar hotel over client sexual harassment

Two certified massage therapists are suing San Diego’s five-star resort, the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, alleging management failed to protect them from repeated inappropriate sexual behavior by certain clients.

The two women, who no longer work at the golfing and spa resort in Carmel Valley, say managers acted too little or too late to ban the male clients or stop them from uncovering while on the massage table and asking for explicit touching.

Plaintiffs Christina Murphy and Madeline Flores allege that at least four other female massage therapists — who are not named in the lawsuit — were victimized in the same manner over an 11-year span.

Attorneys for Murphy and Flores filed a complaint for damages Tuesday, Feb. 26, in San Diego Superior Court. They allege sexual harassment by non-employees, failure to prevent sexual harassment by non-employees, wrongful termination and retaliation.

A resort spokeswoman said the safety of guests and employees is a top priority, and a healthy work environment “remains paramount.”

“Fairmont Grand Del Mar acts diligently to investigate employee complaints and is confident that there was no wrongdoing by (the) hotel in connection with this matter,” Michelle Heston said in an email. “As this matter is currently in litigation we are not able to further comment.”

The suit contends that an abusive, hostile work environment for some female massage therapists dates to the hotel’s opening in 2007.

Flores worked there from 2007 until Aug. 11 last year, when, she alleges, she was terminated. Murphy worked there from 2015 until she resigned on Feb. 14 of this year.

“In the face of numerous complaints of sexual harassment (against) its female massage therapists over the past several years, the Grand protected the perpetrators instead because the perpetrators are rich male clients who spend thousands and thousands of dollars at the Grand each year,” the lawsuit states.

It adds that the Grand acted “in its quest to remain on top” with its Forbes five-star and AAA five-diamond ratings.

The former owner of The San Diego Union-Tribune, Doug Manchester, was the owner of the Grand Del Mar until he sold his majority interest to Fairmont Hotels in 2015. He retains a minority interest.

He is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but plaintiffs allege Manchester “set the tone for a toxic, sexist workplace.”

“I had nothing to do with the day-to-day management even when I owned it,” Manchester said of the resort in a phone interview Wednesday, Feb. 27. “I am proud of the management and very upset that someone is casting aspersions against it. I’m surprised at this and disappointed, for everybody.”

The plaintiffs allege that two spa clients in particular would walk naked in the massage room and proposition the therapists for sexual favors.

Murphy, Flores and four other massage therapists complained to the Grand Del Mar’s human resources and security offices, as well as to the spa manager and director, the plaintiffs say.

“They tried to tell everyone they could,” said Alreen Haeggquist, attorney for Flores and Murphy.

The women said they put cautionary notes into the clients’ files to warn other therapists. They allege they would be told they wouldn’t have to massage those clients, only to end up assigned to them again.

One of the clients was banned from the spa last March, the day after Murphy told her bosses she had retained counsel because she didn’t feel safe working at the Grand, she alleges.

— Pauline Repard is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

Copyright © 2019, The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. All rights reserved.
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