More women join lawsuit against Hooters
Allegations grow of secret tapings by hopeful waitresses
By Lisa Sweetingham
(Court TV) -- More than 40 women who had hopes of becoming Hooters Girls say they were secretly filmed while undressing, according to a civil suit filed against the national restaurant chain in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The women join five original plaintiffs who are accusing the company of invasion of privacy, sexual discrimination and harassment, as well as negligent supervision of a Hooters employee. They are seeking unspecified damages.
"I'm disgusted in the way that I was violated and that my privacy was invaded," said Scheana Jancan, one of the original five litigants. "I am disappointed that I put my trust in someone who betrayed my rights and violated me."
Juan Aponte, the former Hooters manager at the center of the allegations, faces a civil battery claim for reportedly touching some of the plaintiffs and commenting on their bodies during the interviews.
Aponte has not been arrested, but a police investigation is expected to wrap up this week, when he'll likely face formal criminal charges. His attorney, C. Mario Jaramillo, did not return calls for comment.
As the manager of a new Hooters restaurant in West Covina, California, Aponte, 32, was in charge of hiring the Hooters Girls -- the typically buxom waitresses in skimpy orange shorts and tank tops who serve hot wings and cold beer to the chain's mostly male patrons.
Aponte interviewed dozens of Hooters hopefuls from November 2003 to February 2004 in a trailer that served as a makeshift office during the restaurant's construction. According to police, he asked the women for much more than details about their waitressing experience.
As a condition of employment, Aponte told the women they first had to try on the Hooters uniform. After handing an applicant a pair of used tan nylons, orange shorts and a white tank top, he stepped outside the trailer, apparently to give her privacy to change. After a few minutes, he returned to take snapshots for her application file.
Call it female intuition, but when two women independently reported to police that they felt they might have been secretly videotaped while undressing, detectives launched an investigation that is stirring up a mess of legal trouble for Hooters of America.
In late February, investigators seized three computers from the trailer and from Aponte's home in Arcadia. Aponte's personal laptop computer contained an extensive collection of girls on film: 180 mpeg files -- video and audio recordings -- of 82 Hooters applicants in various states of undress.
"I've never come across anything like this in the past," said Corporal Rudy Lopez, a 22-year veteran of the department. "It's a shock to a lot of us here."
According to investigators, Aponte placed a handheld digital camera on a desk in the trailer where applicants where asked to change. Some women saw the camera, but weren't aware it was on or may not have known that many digital cameras also have video-recording capabilities.
Police said the manager saved each video file using the girl's first name, and marked photos in their personnel files with a full name, a method that ultimately helped detectives track down all 82 women.
For the past two weeks, detectives have been knocking on doors and confronting the victims, who range in age from 17 to 25. Detectives decided not to show the women their videos, instead revealing photos captured from the recordings for ID purposes.
"They were emotionally stricken," Lopez said. "A lot of them cried, it was very embarrassing for them. Some of these women still live at home with their parents, and they were equally shocked."
Scheana Jancan, an 18-year-old communications major from Azusa, was one of those women who had to share the ordeal with her parents.
"My mom cried. She was really upset that something like this could happen to her daughter," Jancan said. "My dad is just really mad. I think he thought I was too trusting."
Jancan, a petite, brown-eyed blond is one of the original five litigants who spoke at a press conference last week with attorney Gloria Allred (whose daughter, Lisa Bloom, is an anchor with Court TV). Since then, Allred said that about 40 more women with similar stories of shady interviews have joined the suit.
"They were simply looking for jobs," Allred said. "But as a result of their harrowing experience they have been embarrassed, humiliated and emotionally violated."
For its part, Hooters said Aponte's interviewing procedures were a gross violation of company policy.
"Normally, employees fill out an application, we take their personal history, do a background check," said Justin Johl, attorney for the West Covina Hooters. "If they're hired, they report to an orientation where there's training on company policies and procedures. Only after that do they get their uniforms."
'It was kind of strange'
In November, Jancan, who currently waits tables at a country club, was excited to learn that a Hooters was replacing the former Charley Brown's located in West Covina's Restaurant Row.
"I thought it would be a place where I could get some extra hours in addition to the job I have now," Jancan said. She met Aponte face-to-face for her first interview.
"He seemed nice and professional," Jancan said. "But I just thought it was kind of strange that I had to come back that night to try on the uniform."
Aponte told Jancan that he was so busy with interviews that she would need to return after-hours to model the outfit for him. She came back at 6:15 p.m., and, like the others, was secretly videotaped as she changed.
According to the women, before Aponte stepped outside the trailer, he instructed them on where to stand when they disrobed.
"Some were told that the reason they had to stand in a particular spot was to make sure that construction workers passing by the trailer would not be able to see them," Allred said.
"[They] were also told that they should not wear underwear in which their panty line could be seen, insinuating that no panties or a G-string would be preferable under the Hooters shorts." Some of the women, according to Allred, "were touched by the manager without their consent as he adjusted their uniforms."
All of the original five litigants were hired by Hooters before learning through press reports or from detectives that they had been videotaped.
Although Jancan, who hopes to be a reporter one day, said a job at Hooters is out of the question now, some women intend to report to work when the restaurant opens in May.
"The police have given my name to a lot of women," Johl said. "I have received several calls from women who were videotaped, who say their anger and frustration is not with Hooters, but with Mr. Aponte."
Johl did not identify these women, citing potential privacy issues.
Police said Hooters has been very cooperative with the ongoing investigation. Aponte was fired, files and videotapes are in the possession of the authorities, and Johl said the company intends to address the incident with additional employee training.
"This was the intentional act of one employee," Johl said. "We're pretty upset. But the problem is when someone commits an intentional act like that, there's not much you can do."
Allred, however, argues the company should be held responsible.
"We think these women had a reasonable expectation of privacy," Allred said. "It's against the law in California to secretly videotape employees while they're changing clothes, and there's no exception in the law for Hooters."