Beverage director sues Four Seasons' operator claiming harassment and discrimination

Tiffany Dawn Cianci, shown in 2012. She is known professionally as Tiffany Dawn Soto (her former name).
Tiffany Dawn Cianci, shown in 2012. She is known professionally as Tiffany Dawn Soto (her former name). (COLBY WARE / BALTIMORE SUN)

The former beverage manager at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore is suing the hotel's operator for wrongful or abusive discharge, harassment, gender discrimination and for creating a hostile work environment. 

In the suit, Tiffany Dawn Cianci claims she was harassed repeatedly by her superiors and ultimately terminated after refusing to sell alcohol that she believed was acquired outside of Maryland law. She also cites what the suit called "humiliating" practices related to pumping breast milk for her infant.

Citing lost wages, damages for emotional distress and punitive damages, she is asking for $750,000. The defendant in the case is FSB Operating Company, LLC, whose principal business activity, the suit says, is the operation of the Four Seasons in Baltimore. 

Cianci's suit, filed last month in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, claims that she refused repeatedly to participate in selling "illegally sourced" alcohol, which led to "verbal abuse" and "daily harassment" by her employer.

The suit claims Cianci was asked to serve alcoholic beverages "that were obtained by the Baltimore Hotel from someone other than licensed wholesalers." The suit then references the Maryland Annotated Code related to the prohibition of selling alcohol without a license.

She was terminated, the suit says, on Oct. 29, 2013, less than two months after being asked to serve alcohol obtained "in violation of Maryland state liquor laws" at a charity event.

Cianci, who is known professionally by her former name, Tiffany Dawn Soto, was responsible for the beverages programs at the hotel's restaurants, which included Wit & Wisdom, the Japanese restaurant Pabu, and the coffee shop, Lamill -- Pabu and Lamill were closed earlier this year.

Those restaurants were all developed and operated by the San Francisco-based Mina Group. Cianci's suit says the exact relationship between the hotel and the Mina Group was not clear, and that she "was exposed to unclear and often contradictory instructions from FSB and Mina Group management."

The suit says the "verbal harassment and abuse of Ms. Cianci by various Mina Group employees was known to and condoned by FSB."

"It's a very complicated situation, and very difficult," Cianci said in a phone call. She said that on the advice of her lawyers, she could not elaborate on the details of her lawsuit.

The suit says that Cianci "was the first non-Japanese woman to earn the title of Sake Kikizake-shi (or Master Sake Teacher) in Japan. Her expertise has been praised in many national and international publications."

George Philippou, the lawyer for Four Seasons Baltimore, did not return a call asking for comment. Cianci's attorney, Razvan E. Miutescu, declined to discuss the case.

"Given the pending lawsuit, which is still in very early stages, we – the attorneys and Ms. Cianci – will limit our comments for now to what is said in court filings," Miutescu wrote in an email. 

Cianci's suit also claims that she was subjected to gender and disability harassment after her employers learned she was pregnant. One manager, the suit says, asked her when she intended to quit her job and raise her baby. "According to him, that is what is [sic] wife did when she had a baby and he expected Ms. Cianci to do the same," the suit says.

Cianci also claims that the hotel failed to provide her proper accommodations for lactation breaks, saying she was asked to pump breast milk in a room with a large glass window.

"We recommend that you [sit] in the corner away from the door for complete privacy," Cianci alleges she was told in an email from the hotel's director of human resources.

In her suit, Cianci said that because of the lack of accommodation, she was forced to pump milk under her desk in her own office, which the suit called "terribly embarrassing" and "personally humiliating."

In late August, shortly after the suit was filed, the Baltimore-based restaurateur Alexander F. Smith, who owns Ouzo Bay, announced that he was bringing on Cianci as a consultant for Azumi, the new Japanese restaurant he is developing for the Four Seasons location where Pabu formerly operated.

"Tiffany has a tremendous amount of knowledge in this area and her experience will be invaluable," Smith said in an email when making the announcement.


Asked today if Cianci's lawsuit would affect her relationship with Azumi, Smith said, "She will still be a consultant for us but she will not be employed by us."
Smith is the grandson of John S. Paterakis, the hotel's developer.

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