A woman who worked at a Panda Express restaurant in Santa Clarita and sued her former employer, alleging she was forced to strip to her underwear and hug another undressed co-worker as part of a team-building activity, will have to take her claims to an arbitrator rather than a jury, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elaine Lu ruled that Jennifer Spargifiore was bound by the terms of agreements she signed in 2016 and 2018 in which she said she would arbitrate disputes. Lu heard arguments on May 27 and then took the case under submission June 3.
In a sworn declaration, Spargifiore said that before filing her lawsuit, she knew nothing about having signed any arbitration agreements with Panda Express.
In her suit filed Feb. 26, Spargifiore, 23, alleged the 2019 incident was part of a trust-building activity hosted by Panda Express and the self- improvement consulting company Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy. Her manager allegedly told her that the seminar was required to be considered for a promotion.
The lawsuit stated that the plaintiff worked at the Santa Clarita Panda Express from August 2016 to July 2019 and that the sessions “bizarre and quickly devolved into psychological abuse.”
The incident in question happened July 13, 2019, where Spargifiore participated in an exercise wherein she was forced to strip to her underwear under the guise of trust-building, according to the lawsuit.
“The seminar more and more resembled a cult initiation ritual as time went on,” the lawsuit states.
Spargifiore went into the seminar “hopeful and optimistic about her future at Panda Express. She left it three days later scarred and downtrodden,” the suit states.
Panda Express told her to attend the seminar and made it clear that any promotion depended on it, according to the suit. Panda Express, however, did not care about Spargifiore’s experience at Alive Seminars or that she had been humiliated in front of her co-workers, the suit alleges.
“Her chances of promotion were destroyed,” the suit states. “She had been forced to strip in front of her co-workers.”
Spargifiore’s work conditions became intolerable and she was forced to resign as a result in July 2019, her suit alleges.
The fast-food eatery’s parent company, Panda Restaurant Group, previously said it had launched its own investigation into Spargifiore’s allegations.
“We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us,” the statement read.