“Suing a Strip Club in Small Claims Court”
It was the Spring of 2006 when my coworker Berlin and I were baby strippers at Cabaret on Burnside. She cut her hand open on broken glass one night at work. “You should sue them!” I said to her while she was tending to her bloody wound in the basement. “I know they have the best lawyers in town, I'll never win,” Berlin said. She ended up paying for her own medical care. For the next several years I tried to ignore the atrocities of strip clubs while I completed my college education and Berlin became a local celebrity. In 2012, I was fired from Union Jack's for not shaving, and the lawyers I called told me they couldn't help me. It wasn't until 2013 that Serpent Libertine from Chicago's Sex Worker Outreach Project got me my first consultation with a labor lawyer after I went to a SWOP-Chicago meeting and said I wanted a strippers’ union. In 2014, I learned about Matilda Bickers suing Portland’s Casa Diablo for sexual harassment.
Most strip clubs across the United States mislabel their workers as independent contractors, but actually treat them as employees. They do this by coercing dancers to follow a schedule, making them participate in a stage rotation, telling them what to wear, telling them how much they are allowed to charge for services, telling them what services they are permitted to offer, and taking gratuity money away from them. Federal law states that if a worker's performance is central to a business functioning, those workers are employees. Despite all of this, strip clubs almost never acknowledge the rights or status of their employees. That is the easiest way for them to avoid lawsuits related to Title VII discrimination, union organizing, workman's compensation, minimum wage and overtime pay. Title VII protects women and minorities from being discriminated against or harassed in the workplace. Strip clubs get away with it because few people care to change things or enforce employee protections for strippers. But, over the past couple of decades, a few litigious strippers have achieved small victories. They've made headline news articles, and the illegal practices they've exposed now threaten the way strip clubs do business.
In response to the litigation, some strip clubs have changed their exploitative practices, but they have not always done so correctly. Rather than properly classifying strippers as employees and allowing them to unionize, some strip clubs have hired attorneys to think of ways to maneuver around the law, through deceitful language and contracts. These kinds of strip clubs will often enforce the same kinds of illegal rules that strip clubs have always enforced, but will neglect to write any of these restrictions down or post them on the wall. A stage fee will become a lease fee. Managers talk in doublespeak about tipping out and stage shows. They know that written words and blatantly illegal practices are more likely to cause them to lose a case when a stripper sues them.
Last June, I moved to the state of Minnesota, after being fired from a Las Vegas club for my labor organizing activities. I ordered a discreet audio recorder from the internet. Nevada isn't a one-party consent state, so it was difficult to collect evidence there about how my strip club was operating illegally and exploiting its dancers. In Minnesota, I knew it would not be so difficult; Minnesota is a one-party consent state. One-party consent means I was allowed to audio record conversations I had with my manager without telling him.
I auditioned at a strip club in a sleepy St. Paul suburb on the Mississippi River called King of Diamonds. This strip club had already been sued a few years ago and had changed management following the case. I worked there for about four weeks, and found it unsurprising to learn that their club protocol treated strippers as employees rather than independent contractors. Here are some of those practices:
Controlling shift hours
Enforcing full nudity on stage
Collecting VIP money from us
Setting the prices of our services
Bullying dancers for minimum tips to staff
Collecting late fees
Charging dancers to leave early
Picking the staff and DJ with no input from the strippers
Pretending dancers aren't necessary for the business to operate
Telling dancers to be nice to customers
Since King of Diamonds had been sued in the past, this club was unusually savvy about dodging my collection of evidence. When I was hired, they had me sign a paper tiger independent contractor agreement, then took the document away from me, refusing to give me a copy. When I asked for a copy of their rules, they wouldn't give me one. Many of their rules were communicated by word-of-mouth and not posted anywhere in the club.
On my last day of work at the club, I switched on the audio recorder that I'd sewn into the side panel of my brassiere. I managed to record my manager, threatening me with poor treatment if I didn't tip the staff. He refused to give me a copy of my contract and told me I needed to lose my attitude and that I was very close to losing my job. I needed to leave town in July anyway, so I never went back there.
Later on in 2015, I visited the labor commission in the Twin Cities, to talk to them about what happened when I worked at King of Diamonds. At the labor commission, I was able to have a meeting with a lawyer, free of charge. The lawyer told me that since I was no longer working there, they were unable to investigate the club. He explained to me that in the state of Minnesota, the labor commission doesn't investigate places where people no longer work, because disgruntled ex-employees might instigate an audit out of spite. This policy varies by state, with some states more willing to do an investigation even if the employee no longer works for the exploitative company. A simple Google search or phone call to your local labor commissioner can inform you about your state's policy.
Since I was unable to have the labor commission investigate King of Diamonds, the lawyer told me I could file a suit against them in a county small claims court, so long as the suit was for under the maximum amount of small claims. King of Diamonds owes me $4,200 in the form of back wages, house fees, tips and VIP fees, so I was well under the Minnesota designated maximum amount of small claims.
It seemed like a daunting set of tasks at first, but I was able to get King of Diamonds into small claims court. The following steps are Minnesota-specific and can be altered by your state or jurisdiction:
Printing out a summons to small claims court, available on the county court website
Getting free legal aid in downtown Minneapolis, to instruct me on how to fill the form out
Bringing my summons to the Dakota county courthouse, along with a $75
Sending two certified copies of the summons to King of Diamonds, to serve them
Getting my certified mail receipts in my mailbox, telling me that King of Diamonds was served
Preparing all of the evidence against King of Diamonds, and organizing all violations of the employee test
Although I have no problem getting naked in public, I have an irrational fear of public speaking. Sitting in small claims court and waiting for my name to be called was the most difficult part of this process. On the morning that I was to appear in court, my pores were leaking sweat. I was already sitting in the waiting area when I saw the King of Diamonds people walk in through the metal detector. The owner glared at me when we made eye contact. She’d brought along her lawyer and two jackass manager/bouncers who didn't like me. In small claims court, plaintiffs and defendants are given time to exchange documents and try to reach a settlement. Neither party in my case was interested in reaching a settlement. While I was handing over the documents to the King of Diamonds lawyer, I took out my flash drive and informed him that I had secretly audio recorded management. His eyes bugged out and surprised panic temporarily swept over his otherwise stoic face. I went back into the courtroom by myself, while the King of Diamonds people stayed in the lobby for a few more minutes. We were the last case to be called.
Since I was the plaintiff, I spoke first. My voice shook and my heart pounded, but I got out everything that I needed to. I wasn't sure if electronics were allowed in the courtroom, so I didn't end up using my recording, but I told the judge exactly what it said, while offering the court flash drives of the recorded conversation. He said since the defendants couldn't hear the recordings in order to argue against them, he couldn't use them. If I could change anything about that day, I would have brought in a device to play my flash drives.
I picked my packet up the following week to see that I’d won $3,700. The judge thought I’d miscalculated the money the club owed me and took $500 off my original request. Aside from that, his judgment was very supportive of my claim. He called their contract “a fiction” and gave me my unpaid wages and gratuities back.
There are a few days left for King of Diamonds to appeal. If they decide to appeal, there will be a whole new trial. I intend to argue in the potential new trial just as I did in the first one, and bring a device with me to play my recording. I am willing to go through this process, not just for the sake of the money, but because I want to set a precedent. These kinds of sneaky strip club practices will not be tolerated. I want to create more cracks in the gig economy.
There's still a long way to go, but I feel privileged to be able to improve the lives of strippers by challenging our exploitative employers. Many dancers make the argument that enforcing their employee status would only cause their employers to take more of their money and cause some clubs to close down. They believe this because companies are really good at using scare tactics to divide workers, preventing them from uniting and leveraging their power against a common oppressor-- the boss. Strip clubs can survive off of entrance fees and liquor sales. They just cry poverty to their dancers about loss of profit, scheduling freedom and gratuities, because they don’t want to pay taxes or be held accountable for all of the fucked up things that they do. Don’t believe them. They are liars. Strippers of the world, unite.