Four former dancers at Shotgun Willie's have filed a class action lawsuit against the iconic Denver strip club, alleging that they were ripped off by way of an illegal system that charged them to perform and forced them to help cover other employees' earnings out of tips they received. The complaint's charges mirror those outlined in a March lawsuit filed against the company that owns five other exotic-dance venues in the Mile High City, including the Diamond Cabaret.
Shotgun Willie's "exploited the dancers in a variety of different ways," says Mari Newman, the attorney in both cases. "The dancers had to pay to be allowed to work, they had to pay for the dances they did, and they had to share their tips with other workers. So even as they were not being paid, they were required to pay some of the tips they received from customers to other employees."
The suit specifically targets Bavaria Inn Restaurant, Inc., which does business as Shotgun Willie's, as well as Debbie Matthews, the club's owner and a frequent Westword article subject. Matthews is married to Mike Dunafon, a onetime gubernatorial candidate and current mayor of Glendale, the community in which Shotgun Willie's is located.
The plaintiffs at present are four ex-dancers at the club: Chada Mantooth, Gale Raffaele, Alexis Nagle and Nicole Bujok. However, the suit's class action status allows other onetime Shotgun Willie's dancers who contact Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, Newman's law firm, to opt into the complaint.
The portion of the lawsuit devoted to "Factual Allegations" maintains that in order to maximize profits at the expense of the dancers, Shotgun Willie's "failed to pay a minimum wage or overtime pay, regularly denied them and other members of the Class the full wages and tips they had earned, required them to pay various fees and fines in order to be allowed to work, and otherwise violated their legal rights."
Dancers were asked "to pay before being allowed to work depending on the time their shifts began," the suit goes on, with so-called house fees topping out at $100; the highest fees were charged for the more profitable night shifts. In lieu of salary, the dancers received only "a portion of the gratuities or 'tips' that they were given by customers." The rest was given to bouncers, disc jockeys, the door person, dance counters and valets.
In addition, the suit maintains, dancers had to pay $5 for every personal/private dance provided to customers and another de facto fee whenever they danced in the "champagne" or "VIP" rooms; they were charged $25 for every hour they weren't on the stage dance rotation. As for those champagne and VIP room dances, Shotgun Willie's "required them to charge $25 per song played and to then pay $5 of that money to defendants," the complaint states.
Dancers were also fined for not dancing on stage during their shifts. If they were conducting a private dance when it was their turn on the main stage, they were charged $25.
The Denver clubs named in the two lawsuits are hardly the only ones that use such practices, Newman acknowledges. "This is the regressive standard of those within the industry who have not caught up with actually acting in a way that complies with federal law," she says. "A number of clubs continue to violate the law in the same way, in the face of a long line of court decisions that say this is illegal."
Indeed, Newman reveals that a lawsuit she filed in 2013 against Fantasy Gentlemen's Club in Grand Junction was formally settled in January. In that case, as in this one, the club's owner, Kevin Eardley, was named as a defendant, making him personally liable in the action.
Regarding Fantasy Gentlemen's Club, Newman says, "We received a court order that found the dancers were legally entitled to be classified as employees, not independent contractors, and are entitled to wages and all the benefits that come with being an employee."
Why do clubs continue to utilize such a payment approach in the face of court losses? Newman has a theory: "There's so much stigma attached to the work these women are doing, and the owners of the clubs rely on that stigma in continuing to oppress them. They hope that people will be discouraged from standing up because they'll be discriminated against by the work they're doing. But people deserve to be paid for their work no matter what they do."
She adds, "It takes extraordinary courage for these women to stand up. And that's what they're doing."