A Garden City teenager is suing a former co-worker at the Garden City Taco Bell she claims sexually harassed and assaulted her, and the company itself for allegedly ignoring her repeated complaints about the toxic work environment.

In 2017, the co-worker, Patrick Vestal, of Leoti, was charged with rape in Finney County District Court after being accused of forcing himself on the teenager at work. The charge was dismissed in a plea deal.

Now, after a lengthy evaluation process with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the teenager is suing Vestal, Taco Bell Corp., Taco Bell of America, LLC, and owner of the Garden City location, Border Management of Lubbock, Texas, for assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and the Taco Bell defendants with violating Title VII on sexual harassment and sex discrimination counts, intentional failure to supervise and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The language surrounding the key incident in the 2017 case has changed, but still claims assault.

Friday, Vestal, in Finney County Jail for a recent probation violation, denied all of the lawsuit’s accusations.

On all charges, the suit asks for back pay and benefits for the teenager, job reinstatement, past and future compensation for deep emotional distress brought on by the incident, other affirmative relief, punitive damages for Taco Bell’s “malicious conduct or reckless indifference” and an order calling for Taco Bell to establish policies, practices and programs that would protect employees against sexual harassment in the workplace, according to case files.

Katherine Myers of Edelman, Leisen and Myers in Kansas City, Mo., filed the lawsuit in federal court in the district of Kansas on Feb. 8. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, The Telegram will not name the plaintiff.

 

The lawsuit

The suit’s complaint and a form the teenager filed with the EEOC Commission both claim Vestal continually sexually harassed the girl.

The lawsuit claims Vestal, then 17, called the teenager, then 15, and her sister, then 13, “cute” and “hot” the day the teenager was interviewed. He “became more aggressive and flirtatious” with the teenager by inappropriately touching her, making sexually inappropriate comments, asking her out on a date, touching her thigh sexually and, despite her repeatedly denying his advances, not taking no for an answer, according to the complaint.

“You’ll end up coming back,” the complaint claims Vestal told her.

Gloria Salas, who was manager of the local Taco Bell at the time and still manages the restaurant, declined to comment.

When the teenager first told Salas she was uncomfortable with Vestal's behavior toward her, Vestal entered the room, Salas told Vestal to leave the teenager alone and he agreed, the complaint claims. No one at Taco Bell seemed to take any other action to stop the harassment, according to the complaint.

The complaint claims Vestal’s behavior continued, if not escalated. He said he loved the teenager and was waiting for her to "come of age," the complaint stated, so they could be together. The complaint also accuses him of calling her sexy, grabbing her behind, calling the younger sister hot and saying that he wanted to have sex with her.

The teenager claims Vestal asked her to have sex with him, and she continuously refused.

The teenager claims she reported Vestal to Salas several times over the next few weeks with little success. According to the complaint, Salas said she was getting tired of the teenager reporting Vestal, saying she should wait until he learned to change his behavior on his own.

The complaint states that on May 15, 2017, — Vestal turned 18 eight days prior — he and the teenager took out the trash together at work. While outside, Vestal “grabbed, kissed, and fondled Plaintiff without consent,” according to the complaint. It claims she cried and denied him, but he “would not stop.”

The complaint goes on to state that Vestal told her “to ‘shut up’ and that he would stop once it’s over," and that he put his hands up her shirt, fondled her chest and subjected her “to unwanted and unwelcome sexual touchings.”

The teenager confided about the alleged incident to a co-worker, who told assistant manager Kennia Laureno, who told Salas. The teenager believed lodging a complaint would be futile at that point and feared for her safety, according to the complaint.

“... I was afraid that if I continued to report Patrick to management that he may try and hurt me outside of work,” the teenager said on the EEOC form.

The Garden City Taco Bell managers were not properly trained to respond to the teenager’s reports, according to the complaint. Salas, it claims, “did not know what to do.”

When the teenager said she was concerned about returning to work with Vestal, the complaint claims, Salas told her to give three weeks notice before quitting. The teenager did not return to work and, on May 29, was fired for “job abandonment.”

“As a further direct and proximate result of Defendants’ actions and/or omissions, Plaintiff has suffered a loss of self-esteem, emotional distress, pain and suffering, fear, loss of sleep, disturbing dreams, anxiety, depression, humiliation, diminished career potential, isolation, embarrassment, a diminished job record, and mental anguish…” the claim states.

Vestal was fired about one week later, after the police became involved.

Vestal told The Telegram Friday that he did not do anything the lawsuit claims he did. He said he barely knew the teenager, almost never saw her outside of work and did not work with her often. He said Salas never spoke to him about sexual harassment complaints.

 

Past accusation

In May 2017, an employee from Garden City High School reported a sexual assault to the Garden City Police Department, Vestal was arrested and authorities filed an affidavit requesting a rape charge against him, said GCPD Sgt. Lana Urteaga. Vestal subsequently was charged on an allegation that he raped the teenager at Taco Bell.

Later that year, Assistant County Attorney Tamara Hicks amended the complaint to include a charge that Vestal tried to prevent the teenager from reporting the incident.

The county attorney’s office eventually agreed to a plea bargain that dismissed the rape charge in exchange for Vestal pleading no contest to victim intimidation, Hicks said. The plea deal was carried out and Vestal was convicted of victim intimidation on Nov. 21, 2017. He was sentenced to two years probation.

Earlier, the defense had asked the court to dismiss all charges against Vestal for “lack of evidence and contradiction of statements.”

Hicks said when dealing with rape or sexual assault cases, prosecutors often consider whether a jury trial would put a child victim through more distress, and may dismiss simply to avoid putting a child through more trauma.

Vestal, in jail for recently violating his 2017 probation, said he thought if the case went to trial he would have won. After several months in jail, he said, he was scared and eager to go home to his family, so he took the plea deal. If there’s a chance to go to trial with the new case, he said he's eager to do so.

On Feb. 6, a Wichita County Sheriff deputy arrested Vestal on allegations of driving under the influence, possession of drug paraphernalia, criminal trespass and for failure to notify his court services officer of the incident within 24 hours, violating several conditions of his probation.

In November 2017, before the final court date, the teenager filed a Charge of Discrimination form with the EEOC for evaluation. About a year later, on Nov. 20, 2018, the EEOC notified her that it would not take on the case itself, said James Ryan, EEOC public affairs specialist. The ruling does not necessarily reflect poorly on any case, he said.

Taco Bell has previously faced litigation from the EEOC.

In 2009, a Pennsylvania franchise owner paid $35,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit where a male general manager made “crude sexual overtures, gestures and comments to female employees.” The same year, Taco Bell Corp. paid $350,000 in damages in a suit that claimed a Memphis Taco Bell manager raped two 16-year-old female employees.

In the first suit, the EEOC claimed the company did not do enough to stop the harassment. In the second, the corporation was ordered to issue a written anti-sexual harassment policy to all employees in the area and provide anti-discrimination training and notices.

For “at least a decade” Taco Bell has known about “the significant risk of their employees being subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace,” Myers said in the complaint filed earlier this month. Regardless, it “engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination and harassment” that allowed it to occur anyway.

Myers declined to comment on the current case brought by the Garden City teenager.

Representatives from Taco Bell Corp. and Border Management did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment.

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.