Taking on a nation

Claiming they were sexually harassed and abused while working at a tribal casino, a group of California women are suing. There's only one problem: As part of a sovereign Indian nation, the casino is exempt from civil U.S. law.

Published January 13, 2006 11:53AM (EST)

When the stately doors of Thunder Valley Casino first swung open, says Elizabeth Ward, an energetic mother of two, working there was "all fun and games." Ward put in 10-hour days as the casino's beverage supervisor. She worked six days a week, helping to hire, train and oversee 264 bartenders, cocktail waitresses and bar-backs, including many people she knew from around town. Her mother, Cheryl Dalton, worked in the casino's marketing department.

Located a short drive from Sacramento, Calif., Thunder Valley Casino is owned by the United Auburn Indian Community, a small tribe of about 250 members who had been living in poverty on a three-acre reservation until Station Casinos of Las Vegas lent it a couple hundred million bucks to buy 50 acres of wetlands and sponsor a casino. The tribe owns the casino and gets a cut of the take, but the boys from Vegas paid for it, built it and control its operations. It was designed to resemble a Tuscan villa, although ended up looking like a Costco.

The $215 million casino went live in 2003 with nearly 2,000 employees, more than 2,700 video-slot machines, 98 gaming tables, a fancy steakhouse, a 500-seat buffet room, a Starbucks and a Fatburger. One of Ward's jobs was to oversee the girls on the casino floor, which involved getting them fitted in black go-go boots with 2-inch soles and 4-inch heels, faux-leather black halters, and short-shorts with a metal ring hanging off an oversize zipper.

"They paraded in front of some of the upper management and a few gentlemen from Las Vegas," says Ward. "That's when the measurements came into play: The men decided which girls would work the casino floor, and which girls got to work the Falls Bar."

The Falls Bar is the sensual epicenter of the casino. The walls around it are fashioned from alternating panels of stone, sheets of water encased in glass, and sheer white curtains. Patrons sprawl on leather divans as barely attired waitresses serve them cocktails. "The girls chosen for the Falls Bar were delighted," says Ward. "Those who didn't make it were devastated." For one thing, when high rollers request the exclusive services of a cocktail waitress, the plum assignments are reserved for members of the Falls Bar crew, who attend to the big spenders in a private salon.

But not all of the Falls Bar women would remain delighted with their position on the pedestal -- or with many other aspects of life at the casino. In a civil lawsuit filed in 2005 with the Placer County Superior Court, Dalton, Ward and five other women -- all former employees of Thunder Valley Casino -- allege gender and age discrimination, sexual harassment, wrongful termination, and violation of state and federal labor codes by casino management. A casino hostess, Sundi Lyons, claims she was raped by one of the Thunder Valley managers.

The casino and tribe responded in a legal brief that the case should be dismissed because the tribe is immune from civil lawsuits and its "sovereign immunity extends to the casino because it is legally inseparable from the tribe."

The lawsuit alleges that what started out as an exciting place to work quickly turned tawdry and mean. And the entire case lifts the curtain on the increasingly controversial relationship between U.S. citizens employed by Indian casinos -- most of them non-Indian -- and the sovereignty of Native American governments, which are immune from many state and federal laws. The women involved in the lawsuit had no idea that when they went to work at Thunder Valley, they signed away many of the protections other working people in this country take for granted.

Ward, who now owns a maternity clothing store with her mother, has strong feelings about what happened. "Every person that took a job in that casino did so with the best intention of making a career and supporting her family," she says. "But people are being treated like crap and spit out." Her eyes blaze. "You think that anywhere you work, there are laws protecting you, that you have rights. But I took a job inside my hometown, and to find out that I am not protected is appalling. I pay my taxes, and then to turn around and tell me that a person can have terrible things happen to them and there is no recourse? That doesn't fly with me."

Sundi Lyons alleges that she was raped and stalked by one of the casino's managers. (Photo by Jeffrey Braverman)

As Indian-owned casinos rack up nearly $20 billion a year, their seamy underside is emerging in public view. The current Jack Abramoff scandal has exposed the extraordinary power plays between gambling tribes and Washington politicians. The super-slick lobbyist, who pleaded guilty this month to fraud, corruption and tax evasion charges, consistently entertained and raised money for Congress members to curry favor for his clients, Indian tribes seeking land deals for casinos.

In fact, Abramoff's tentacles stretched all the way to Thunder Valley Casino. Abramoff feared that federal approval of Thunder Valley would damage the legal case of one of his tribal clients in Louisiana. In 2002, he sought to join political forces with the area's Republican Congressman, John Doolittle, who opposed the casino. No evidence has surfaced that Doolittle did Abramoff's bidding; regardless, the casino was ultimately approved by the U.S. Department of Interior.

But the issue raised by the Thunder Valley lawsuit goes beyond a sleazy lobbyist's machinations. It involves nothing less than a collision between the legal rights of U.S. citizens and Indian sovereignty. In writing the laws that grant sovereignty to Indian nations, Congress has inadvertently allowed 400 casino-owning tribes to sidestep lawsuits brought by angry vendors, contractors and employees. They are laws that have allowed some Indian casinos to operate like imperial principalities.

Station Casinos, which manages Thunder Valley and owns a dozen casinos in Las Vegas, is one of the top 10 gambling corporations in the country. In Nevada, its trademark "neighborhood" casinos sport bowling lanes, family restaurants, and round-the-clock child care. The Travel Channel's reality show American Casino regularly documents the goings-on at Station's Green Valley Ranch resort in Las Vegas.

CEO Frank Fertitta III and his brother, company president Lorenzo Fertitta, sponsor Ultimate Fighting Championships -- bloody mixes of boxing, wrestling and martial arts shown on cable television. The Fertitta brothers are major stockholders in the public company that was started by their father, Frank Fertitta Jr., a card dealer who left Sicilian mob-controlled Galveston, Texas, for the wilds of Las Vegas in the early 1960s. He did well; by 2004, Station Casinos' annual revenue was close to a billion dollars, with a profit of $66 million.

The women involved in the lawsuit saw a job at Thunder Valley as their chance to ride this golden goose. But it didn't take them long to discover that working at the casino didn't match its glamorous promise.

At first they were mostly bothered by the conditions. Ward grew increasingly uncomfortable with the drill sergeant role she was forced to play. "I got tired of firing my girlfriends," she says. She was often compelled to let them go for being a few minutes late to work, and, in one case, for missing work due to caring for a child with meningitis. Beverage supervisor Kathy Robillard says she was fired for refusing to fire an employee who missed less than two weeks of work due to cancer. Cynthia Walden, a clerk in the marketing division, complained to the head of human resources that the reason she wasn't being promoted was because of her gender. Management retaliated, Walden claims, by firing her and giving her job to a man.

Dalton says the younger women confided in her about these types of incidents, but when she tried to intercede on their behalf with one of her superiors she got nowhere. "After I opened my mouth to management, I could feel the hostility growing," she says. The superior started gossiping about her to co-workers, she says, and when she asked for a promotion, he told her she was too old.

When the company asked employees to fill out a supposedly anonymous questionnaire evaluating management, Dalton claims it used their answers to identify and fire disgruntled employees, herself included. "They could tell who we were because they knew our handwriting," she explains.

The real hot button for some of the women, though, was that they felt the casino was turning into a meat market, and not just because of the customers. It was bad enough, they say, when drunken gamblers treated the waitresses as sex objects -- leering at them in their costumes, making suggestive remarks, trying to hire them for sex -- and management did nothing about it. But when Station Casinos' top executives flew into town from Las Vegas, some managers encouraged the waitresses to socialize with them. Photographs obtained by Salon show Station Casinos executives, including Lorenzo Fertitta, partying with disheveled female employees at a bar in downtown Sacramento. Some of the women were OK with this, but others were extremely uncomfortable.

After the bigwigs left town, food and beverage supervisor Amarissa Dillhyon, a single mother of three, alleged in the lawsuit that Curtis Broome, the director of information technology, "forcefully" kissed her against her will while she was working. When Dillhyon complained to her supervisor about his harassment, she was given a more physically demanding job and soon fired.

Walden, 37, a diminutive brunette, recalls that Broome came into her office one day, brushed her hair away from her face, and said her earrings were pretty. She was fired a few days later, which she claims was in retaliation for her complaints about Broome. According to the lawsuit, when she tried to get an explanation for her firing, Broome offered to meet her privately, away from the casino, to discuss it, but she refused. That's when she decided to take action.

Walden's first move was to consult Sacramento attorney Robert Monterrosa, and the two discussed a possible case of workplace discrimination and sexual harassment against the casino. Word snowballed among former Thunder Valley employees, many of whom by then had either quit in dismay or been fired.

As their stories began to surface, several more signed up as plaintiffs, including Dalton, Ward, Robillard, Dillhyon, Lyons and Falls Bar waitress Corinn Medina, who came forward to reveal that her bosses refused to protect her when a customer attempted to unzip her top and pants. Medina claims that security failed to take action when a customer called her a "fucking bitch" and a "whore," threw his car keys on the floor, and told her to bend over and pick them up. Once, she says, when she was choked from behind by an unknown assailant in the employee parking lot (he ran away when she pressed the panic button on her key chain), the head of casino security told her to "keep this on the hush-hush."

Before filing their lawsuit, Monterrosa was required to notify the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing to secure the right to sue. That's when the women got an inkling of what they were up against. The federal agency gave them the right to sue, but also told them it had no jurisdiction to investigate their claims themselves, because the casino is on Indian land, which is sovereign territory. Regina Brown, speaking for the state agency, says pretty much the same thing. (Normally both these agencies are charged with investigating such claims.) California Department of Justice spokesperson Nathan Barankin explains that only the governor has the authority to initiate an investigation into whether sovereign Indian nations are violating the civil rights of employees.

That neither the state nor the feds would take action gets right to the heart of the unique relationship between the U.S. government and Native Americans. Since the nation's earliest days, Indian tribes have been considered sovereign nations, or more precisely, "domestic dependent nations," a term that's maddeningly difficult to define because it's never been precisely codified. It reflects the U.S.'s attempt to wrestle with the fact that it nearly decimated the native population and has long struggled with how to deal with the survivors. Should they be left alone and granted self-rule, or were they now just American citizens like everybody else?

What it boils down to is that Indians living on reservations were granted the right to establish many of their own laws and to remain immune from civil lawsuits, though the particulars have varied tremendously over the years. Since 1934, Congress and the federal courts have allowed tribes to run on-reservation businesses without paying property taxes, excise and sales taxes, or business income taxes to state and local governments. (Bingo games were added to the list in the '70s.) These exemptions are why cigarettes and liquor are so cheap in reservation stores. Congress has also exempted tribes from many state and federal regulations, including labor and antidiscrimination laws and some health, safety, fire and building codes. The idea behind both measures was to stimulate economic development on impoverished reservations.

Before the creation of the Indian casino industry, the exemptions generally didn't affect non-Indians. But since 1988, when Congress granted tribes the right to operate Las Vegas-style casinos on Indian-owned land, the tribes have built their multibillion-dollar behemoth with a workforce that's primarily non-Indian. (Nationwide, only 25 percent of employees at tribal casinos are Native American.) The sovereignty laws, which many claim are the backbone of the industry, saving tribes millions of dollars they would otherwise have to pay in taxes and fees, also exempt the tribes from having to offer state and federal rights and protections.

Most workers in the country are guaranteed a minimum wage and pay for overtime, breaks and some amount of sick leave. They also enjoy protection against sexual harassment and discrimination based on age, race or gender. But because California casinos are owned by sovereign nations, these laws don't apply. The tribes are supposed to come up with their own laws that carry the same weight as state and federal ones, but there's no enforcement, and little evidence that any such laws exist.

In Nevada the situation is a bit different; casinos must comply with all local and state laws and regulations. Most Las Vegas casinos are unionized, which at least guarantees workers the power of collective bargaining. But the vast majority of California casinos, including Thunder Valley, are nonunion (though a union is currently in the process of an organizing drive there), which leaves employees that much more vulnerable. Nor is the problem limited to Thunder Valley. More than 100 lawsuits challenging Indian sovereignty have been filed across the country.

Attorney Howard Dickstein, the sole spokesman for Thunder Valley and the tribe on the lawsuit, says the tribe has its own anti-discrimination policies. Casino policy prohibits sexual discrimination and harassment consistent with state laws," he says. While the tribe "is not subject to the same process as private employers," the tribe had an internal procedure for dealing with employee complaints, which he claims the women were aware of but did not follow.

The women claim, however, that they did follow the appropriate procedures but got nowhere. When rebuffed by the state and the U.S. government, they filed a civil rights lawsuit against not only Thunder Valley Casino but also Station Casinos, the tribe and Broome. Monterrosa, however, soon became overwhelmed by the complexities of the case, so the women had to find someone else to represent them.

It's hard to find a lawyer who will take a case against casino-wealthy tribes, who can hide behind sovereign immunity. Ex-employees generally do not have deep enough pockets to afford lengthy litigation, and judges rule against the people suing more often than they rule in their favor.

Lyons, one of the plaintiffs, spent hours surfing the Web looking for a firm to replace Monterrosa. Eventually the trail led to Equal Rights Advocates, a formidable nonprofit law firm in San Francisco. For 32 years, ERA has been at the legal front lines, forcing large corporations and government agencies, such as AT&T and the San Francisco Fire Department, to provide equal opportunities and benefits to women. ERA currently represents 1.6 million women suing Wal-Mart for gender discrimination; this lawsuit is the largest civil rights case in United States history. Lyons called the ERA hotline, and the women were invited to San Francisco for an interview. After hearing the women's stories, an ERA team led by senior attorney Debra A. Smith agreed to look into the case, and a few months later, they decided to take it over.

Smith sees this lawsuit, Medina v. Station Casinos, as a way of challenging the gaming contracts the state has signed with the tribes. "Las Vegas corporations, which build and operate casinos on tribal lands, cannot be allowed to evade liability for civil rights violations by attempting to hide behind the skirts of sovereign immunity," she says. Smith believes the tribe lost its immunity from state regulation and lawsuits when it neglected to protect the rights of its employees.

Sundi Lyons, 41, grew up as one of nine children in the Sacramento suburbs. After graduating from high school, she married and started a family with her husband, Sean, a manager at a car dealership. They live in working-class Antelope, just north of the state capital. Along the way, Lyons, who is blond, blue-eyed and charmingly vivacious, won a string of beauty pageants: Junior Miss Sacramento in 1982; then Miss Sacramento; and, years later, Mrs. Sacramento.

But life has been harder for Lyons than her résumé suggests. She has mostly fond memories of her childhood but court records show her marriage has been unusually rocky. She and her husband have been periodically estranged and reconciled. They have also demonstrated a penchant for taking people to court. Between them, they have filed lawsuits against a building developer, a landlord, an insurance company, a dentist, a cosmetic company and others. Lyons, who studies criminal justice at a local college, occasionally represented herself in these suits, which she often lost on legal technicalities.

Lyons' odyssey with Thunder Valley began as an attempt to take care of her family. Sean had lost his job and the family needed money and medical insurance. One of Lyons' four children has sleep apnea and another suffers from grand mal seizures; both require medicine and regular treatments. So Lyons realized she had to go to work. That's when she saw an ad in the Sacramento Bee for jobs at Thunder Valley, which included a good family health plan.

Soon after she applied at the casino, she was offered the job of ambassador. "I was the face of the casino on the floor, greeting people when they arrived and signing them up for Boarding Passes." These plastic cards, which patrons wear around their necks, are embedded with a computer chip. Gamblers insert the pass into slot machines and rack up points to earn T-shirts, coffee mugs and even a chance at an instant jackpot. At the same time, the card allows the casino's marketing division to create a profile of their gambling habits.

The job was made for Mrs. Sacramento. "It completely fit my personality, and I was very happy," she says. By fall, however, all that changed, as Broome became an unavoidable presence in her life.

Lyons' lawyers have instructed her not to speak directly about what happened while her case is proceeding. But the lawsuit tells the story. In it, Lyons alleges that Broome -- whom photographs reveal to be handsome, athletic and in his 30s -- started to come on to her in September of 2003. He told her that he "loved" her body. He made sexually explicit comments. Intimidated by the fact that Broome was a ranking executive, Lyons politely told him she was married and unavailable. Undeterred, he repeatedly cornered her in hallways and the employee dining room, touching and fondling her against her will.

Increasingly desperate to avoid Broome, Lyons changed the routes she traveled inside the casino, trying not to walk alone. She changed her working hours. To no avail: In front of casino patrons and employees, she alleges, Broome grabbed her pubic area and stuck his face into her hair and neck. Then, in October, Broome ordered Lyons to stop by his office without telling her why. When she arrived, she claims in the lawsuit, he closed the door, took off her pants, put her on his desk, and sexually assaulted her. When he was done, he handed her a paper towel to clean up her blood. In a state of shock, and terrified by the possibility of losing her job, Lyons kept mum. She had seen women fired for much lesser offenses than accusing a superior of rape, and she had a family with two sick kids to support.

For the next two months, according to the lawsuit, Broome continued to assault Lyons in the hallways. Lyons also alleges that he called her to his office once more and forced her to perform oral sex on him. The shame was overwhelming. She was petrified that if she reported him to management or the police, her family would find out. She says she began to feel ill on the job. On Nov. 18, Lyons quit, citing medical reasons, and hoping that would be the end of the ordeal.

But the next day, Broome came to her house. She was home alone taking a nap. "I was terrified," she says. "I never gave that man my address or my phone number." She woke up to the sound of his heels clicking on the pavement outside her house. "I could hear him pacing in front of the master bedroom and talking to another man. I was scared out of my mind. He had already violated me personally, and now he was violating my premises."

Broome eventually left, and several days later Lyons got a call from Rich Randolph, a lead investigator for the Tribal Gaming Agency, which monitors the casino for the Auburn tribe. He said he was calling to discuss her employment experience at the casino, and she decided to tell him about the sexual assaults. He said he would investigate and asked her not to tell anyone else about it. And that was the last that Lyons heard from Tribal Gaming. Randolph declined to comment for this story, saying he has been instructed not to talk about the case.

Lyons also reported the attacks to Special Agent Paul Chrisman of the California Department of Justice's Division of Gambling Control and again saw no action taken on her behalf.

In a telephone interview, Broome said, "I am no longer employed by the casino, and I have moved on." He does not believe he was properly served with the lawsuit, and he has no attorney. (Smith says that may have been true, but he has since been properly served.) He has declined further comment, saying only, "The lawsuit is full of slanderous allegations by vindictive individuals."

After a detail-rich story about the lawsuit appeared in the Sacramento Bee in January 2005, Lyons and her family were mortified. "My family is in shock," she says. "When the story hit the paper, my husband had to put up with a lot of comments. I don't know how to explain it to my children."

"I go through cycles of anger," she continues. "It's almost been like a death. We all cling together, taking things one day at a time. But as a family, we know this is the right thing to do."

If the case ever comes to trial, Lyons' personal history and her motivations will no doubt be closely examined. Howard Dickstein has suggested that Lyons' troubled marriage and her history of taking people to court somehow taint her lawsuit against the casino. Debra Smith retorts that people lead complex lives and bad things can happen to anyone.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Tuesday morning, Nov. 15, dawned bright and crisp in the hilly town of Auburn, the seat of Placer County. The plaintiffs, fashionably dressed, strolled through the old yellow courthouse. The lawyers from Equal Rights Advocates brought up the rear.

After a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, Placer County Superior Court Commissioner Margaret Wells seated herself. She was there to rule on whether the women had the right to sue in light of Indian sovereignty laws.

The ERA's Debra Smith stepped up to the bar. In a clear voice, she explained why the Thunder Valley lawsuit should be allowed to proceed. The court had jurisdiction, said Smith, because the tribe had failed to protect the women's civil rights. She argued that the tribe's sovereign immunity from lawsuits was trumped by the equal rights provided to all people by the constitutions of California and the United States. She said that the state never intended for tribes to be able to use the tool of sovereignty to take away the civil rights of others. She said it was especially wrong to let a tribe's business partners hide behind Indian sovereignty.

Ruling against Smith, Wells threw the case out of court. "It's a question of law," she said, without elaborating.

The Thunder Valley women and their somber attorneys regrouped on the courthouse lawn, disappointed, but more determined than ever. "We will seek review of the court's final order before the 3rd Appellate District," Smith declared the next day.

The women understand the power of the tribes and Las Vegas. But they also know there is a growing backlash against casino proliferation in California and around the country. Public opinion may compel state legislatures and Congress to curtail abuse of the doctrine of sovereign immunity -- long before their case exhausts the appeal process.

Lyons remains undaunted. "I was taught as a child to stand up for what is right, regardless of public opinion, and to fear no one but God. I know this is going to sound corny, but I choose to remain forever an optimist, regardless of how miserable the situation may be."

By Peter Byrne

Peter Byrne is the news columnist for the North Bay Bohemian in Santa Rosa, California. Read his work at www.peterbyrne.info

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