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Harassment claims hit 3 Double T diners

In the Double T Diner chain's 20-page menu, packed with offerings for hearty appetites, a note from the management assures patrons that the restaurants endeavor to provide "prompt, courteous service in a cheerful atmosphere and pleasant surroundings."

But for some waitresses who have served omelets, cheeseburgers and streams of coffee at three of the chain's restaurants, the promise has been empty, according to lawsuits against the restaurants' owners.

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At least 14 women who worked for the chrome-covered Double T diners have complained of being groped, grabbed and otherwise sexually abused by their bosses or fellow employees. The allegations, contained in court documents filed over the past decade, are replete with details of crass propositions and crude, belittling behavior.

One man convicted of criminal sexual offenses still works as a manager in the Ellicott City Double T. Another offender is a host in the Pasadena restaurant. Both are related to the man who bought the original Double T restaurant 23 years ago, and one is the subject of a continuing federal civil discrimination lawsuit, filed in January by a former waitress.

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Attorneys for Double T management deny the allegations. They say the restaurants have implemented detailed anti-harassment policies &emdash; some outlined in federal consent decrees &emdash; and employ a man they describe as an impartial ombudsman to whom employees can communicate discreetly.

That ombudsman is an attorney in the same firm as Double T's chief defense lawyer and has handled litigation for the chain and its 55-year-old chief executive, Ioannis "John" Korologos.

Despite the Double T's policies, claims of discrimination and harassment have resurfaced at one restaurant.

Stephanie L. Carr, 27, who worked at the Double T on Mountain Road in Pasadena, filed a lawsuit Jan. 28 claiming she had been "publicly subjected to intimidation, ridicule and insult on the basis of her sex," and was the target of "unwanted sexual advances" and "profane, sexually graphic and vulgar language." She reiterated those allegations in a telephone interview.

"Apparently, they just don't get it," said Kathleen Cahill, a Towson lawyer representing Carr who has also represented other Double T waitresses. "It is illegal to treat women like this, plain and simple."

The first Double T Diner was established in 1959, at the intersection of U.S. 40 and Rolling Road in Catonsville. According to the chain's website, Korologos, a former merchant sailor who moved to the United States from his native Greece in 1986, bought the business a year after his arrival, along with two brothers, Tom, now 57, and Louie, 50.

There are now eight restaurants &emdash; four of them open around the clock &emdash; and the distinctive silver structures have become fixtures of the Baltimore suburbs.

The chain's corporate structure includes a parent company linked to other companies that own individual restaurants, all with ties leading back to the Catonsville business address of Korologos, who, according to court records, owns a 25 percent stake in the Double T name. The chain's website says the three Korologos brothers "currently own and manage all eight locations with help from their family and partners."

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Lawyers for the company say the ownership configuration means it is not fair to draw connections between incidents at various restaurants.

Styled after 1950s-era roadside diners, the Double T chain has inspired devotion from some of its waitresses. In July 2002, The Baltimore Sun noted the death of Veronica S. Sakalas, 75, who worked at the Ellicott City diner for 40 years and had retired only six months earlier.

But the chain has also received unflattering attention. A prominent harassment allegation arose in 2001, when 12 former waitresses filed claims against the company's diner on Pulaski Highway in White Marsh, alleging they were subjected almost daily to physical abuse and vile, threatening comments by managers and male co-workers. In 2002, the 12 women collected $300,000 in a settlement after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that it had found "widespread sexual harassment by male staff members directed at female food servers."

The harassment was so bad, the women alleged, that most of them quit. Some of the women said they had been locked in freezers and deliberately burned with hot sauce, according to court records. Male employees carved vegetables into anatomical shapes, the suit said, and the son of one of the owners slammed a waitress against a wall and put his hand up her shirt. The document added that "managers, supervisors and owners" took part in the abusive conduct.

One woman reported that, after complaining that a cook had grabbed her, she was threatened with "bodily harm and rape," while another said she was assaulted with an egg beater. Helen Lagadinos, described as an owner of the Double T in White Marsh, referred to her female employees as "a bunch of whores" and "scuzzy women," according to a court document.

A former employee reported being fired after she complained to the EEOC office in Baltimore. According to court documents, a Double T manager responded to one woman's complaint by saying, "She should be lucky that someone would want to touch her." The document recounted another waitress being told, "Some girls like it."

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Another lawsuit filed against the Double T restaurant in Frederick by the EEOC, which can lodge its own harassment complaints in addition to cases brought by individuals, was settled in 2007 for $35,000 on behalf of a young woman who, the commission said, was sexually harassed two years earlier, when she was 17 and working at the diner.

The woman in that case also filed a civil lawsuit against the diner and one of the location's co-owners, Stylianos Bouzianis, familiarly known as Steve. Although the diner was not held liable, Bouzianis was, and in January 2009, a court awarded the woman another $20,000.

Bouzianis, 40, was convicted of a fourth-degree criminal sex offense. As a result, he had to relinquish custody of the diner's liquor license, which reverted to John Korologos and two partners. Bouzianis still works as a day manager for Double T, mostly in Ellicott City, and his wages are being garnished, by court order, to pay the woman's settlement.

In a brief interview recently while he worked at the Ellicott City diner, Bouzianis politely declined to address the legal actions against him and said the garnishment was an issue best addressed by his boss. "I can't discuss that with you," he said.

The federal lawsuits against the individual Double T restaurants resulted in consent decrees, which included policies on sexual harassment the company said it would follow. In part, managers would be trained to avoid such behavior. Those polices have been adopted throughout the chain, the company's attorneys said.

Lawyers for members of the Korologos family have consistently denied any wrongdoing.

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"I've investigated some of these claims, and most of them are bogus," said Ronald W. Taylor, an attorney who represents Double T's restaurant in Pasadena in the Carr case and did similar legal work in the Frederick EEOC case. Taylor would not be specific about which claims he considered bogus.

Taylor rejected the notion that the companies have "ever condoned any sexual harassment." He said employees have the option of speaking to the ombudsman &emdash; typically a person who acts as an impartial intermediary &emdash; for resolution of their complaints, but that few have done so. "There are people who failed to take advantage of the procedures available to them," he said.

The ombudsman is Arnold E. Jablon, a partner of Taylor's at the Venable law firm in Baltimore who has defended Double T in lawsuits unrelated to sexual abuse.

Jablon, a former zoning and code enforcement official for the Baltimore County government, said he meets with employees at each of the eight diners twice a year to brief them on the company's employment standards, to remind them that he's always reachable, and to "try to resolve issues before they blow up." Only a tiny fraction of the issues discussed at the meetings involve sexual harassment, he said.

"I try to impress upon them that the policy manual is their bible," Jablon said of the employees. He suggested that, perhaps because some of the workers have a poor command of English, "they don't want to listen."

Both Jablon and Taylor insisted that parallels should not be drawn between the behavior of managers and staff in the various Double T diners because, they said, the restaurants operate as distinct and unconnected corporate entities. Only the chain's White Marsh, Pasadena and Frederick locations have been the target of harassment lawsuits.

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The complaint filed by Carr, who worked at the Pasadena diner for five months in 2007 and was engaged to be married at the time, singled out Spyros Korologos, 26, a son of one of the chain's owners, for his conduct and the "foul" way he spoke to her. It said that Korologos, who was "held out to be a manager," fondled her and made a habit of inquiring how many sexual partners she'd had.

Now the mother of a 4-year-old girl, Carr recalled thinking she was "not going to take it any more." She quit her job and pressed criminal charges against Korologos. He was convicted of a fourth-degree sex offense and later was found to have violated the terms of his probation, for failing to attend court-ordered psychological therapy and weekly meetings with his probation agent.

"The behavior has not returned," his lawyer, Taylor, said of Korologos. "After this incident he worked at the diner without complaint."

Taylor confirmed that Korologos still works at the Pasadena diner, not as a manager but as a "greeter." An admonition in the company's policy manual says that any employees, including managers, "who are found, after appropriate investigation, to have engaged in sexual or other harassment of another employee will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including discharge."

The company, Taylor said, "strives to comply with the law and to have a workplace that is free from harassment or intimidation of an illegal nature."


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