A former partner with the California law firm of Bisnar Chase is suing the firm for sexual harassment and breach of contract. Stephen Eggleston claims that he was forced out of the firm after he refused to attend an office retreat where male attorneys were expected to strip naked and engage in an exercise with a Phallus.
According to Eggleston, he refused to go on the retreat when he learned that men would strip naked and pass around a wooden phallus in a circle while describing their sexual experiences.
After he refused to bare all, Eggleston alleged that John Bisnar at Bisnar Chase allegedly became “extremely hostile” and ultimately cut his monthly pay from $15,617 a month to $10,000. It eventually stopped paying him all together.
The firm is also suing Eggleston — for legal fees allegedly owed to the firm.
The retreat is run by ManKind Project, which includes a “New Warrior Training Adventure” is described on its website as “a modern male initiation and self-examination”. The site explains:
Some men come to make a conscious transition for adolescent life to the life of a man. Some men come to find peace of mind in their transition to elder-hood. All men come because a small voice within them lets them know when it’s time.
I will not say what the small voice in my head is telling me right now. As for the nude thing, the site insists (in a section called “Phearing the Phallus”) that it is purely voluntary and a small part of reaching your inner man:
This nudity is NOT required. Any man may choose not to participate in any process. This is part of the foundation of creating a safe environment for men to look with honesty at their lives. If a man chooses to opt out of a process, or to participate while clothed or wearing shorts, that’s fine. The VAST majority of men choose to participate.
By this time during the training, the participants have come to realize just how safe the environment that we create is, that the men are trustworthy, and that such vulnerability will not be exploited. Most men find the experience to be very freeing and fun, and get over their initial discomfort quickly.
We recently discussed another lawsuit where a partner sued two former associates who accused him of sexual harassment.
The Man Project site says that the practice is entirely voluntary.
The complaint below states Eggleston called the retreat to confirm what he had learned and researched public accounts of the retreat. Eggleston alleges that men were expected to walk naked and do other such exercises. He describes the circle in distinctly different ways from the website (please forgive the rather graphic details below but it is relevant to the discussion of both the merits and the tactics):
Another activity included 30 to 50 men sitting naked in a circle on the floor of a candle lit room called the smoke hut. A large wooden dildo called “The Cock” was passed around the room. The man holding “The Cock” was asked to describe in graphic detail a sexual experience in his life. One Internet report stated that a supervisor told attendees that they could place their hand on the penis of the man next to them. However, if the man did not want his penis touched, he was free to remove the hand.”
That would be to strikingly different account from the one from the Mankind Project. The website says that “This nudity is NEVER sexual. There is no sexual touching on the New Warrior Training Adventure. It is forbidden and this is strictly enforced.” Eggleston could argue that this account may not be accurate but that it was the reason for his refusal to attend the retreat — and that his refusal led to his harassment. Indeed, paragraph 28 states that “even assuming that there was no nudity at the February seminar, Eggleston did not want to attend a seminar where he might be required to talk about his sex life . . . ”
Eggelston alleges that he eventually tried to bow out of the retreat by insisting that he spend his mother’s birthday with her because her husband had died recently. However, he alleges that the law firm was insistent that he still attend, telling him that “she’ll have more birthdays.” He specifically names John Bisnar as being hostile to him in his rejection of the retreat.
The account from the Complaint is so over-the-top that the Plaintiff risks losing credibility with the Court and the jury if it is proven to be false. It is so sensational that, if it has no factual basis, it would make the complaint look like a hold up job — an effort to embarrass the firm into settling the case. Either way, discovery could be quite interesting. Of course, if proven true, it would produce the opposite bias in any jury or bench trial.
What I do not understand is whether this firm is entirely made up of men. Even with the alleged touching and nudity, such exclusionary retreats can be the basis for a hostile workplace claim by female associates and partners for obvious reasons. It is rather novel to see a male make such a claim over a retreat but it depends on these accounts.
The complaint appears to rely heavily on Internet accounts and a telephone call made to someone at the non-for-profit company. The complaint acknowledges that the person from the Mankind Project on the telephone call (an individual only referred to as Marshall) said that some of the rumors were “taken out of context” but “confirmed that they were essentially true.” Given the account in the complaint, the project will likely strongly disagree on the factual assertions in discovery if it gets that far.
The counts alleging the breach of contract and failure to pay wages are not necessarily dependent on the retreat allegations. Both the firm and the project have dismissed the allegations in the Complaint.
Here is the complaint: Eggleston Lawsuit
The Orange County Superior Court case is Eggleston v. Bisnar/Chase, No. 30-2010-00404255.