When Emily Wong began working on the in-house public relations team at Chicago’s largest restaurant company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), she felt she had found a company where she could spend her entire career. After working for the company from March 2017 to November 2018, her perception changed. As the Tribune first reported, last week Wong filed a lawsuit claiming former LEYE divisional wine director Ryan Arnold sexually assaulted her last year. She also filed a suit against LEYE, alleging the company fired her in retaliation after reporting the incident.
The complaint, filed on Tuesday, October 8 in Cook County circuit court, accuses Arnold and LEYE of sexual harassment. It also accuses Arnold of sexual assault, battery, and false imprisonment, which occurs when one person confines another in an area against their will. Wong also accuses LEYE of vicarious liability in employing Arnold, retaliatory discharge, negligent supervision, and violating the state whistleblower law. Wong seeks excess of $50,000 in damages, plus excess of $50,000 in punitive damages. She also asks the court to order LEYE to give her backpay and to reinstate her with the same employment status she had before she reported the incident to management.
In a statement sent to the Tribune, Arnold’s attorney called the allegations untrue. The rising star sommelier left LEYE earlier this year and took a job overseeing the wine lists for Austin, Texas-based McGuire Moorman Hospitality. Coincidentally, LEYE is planning to open its first Texas restaurant next year.
McGuire Moorman sent in a statement on Tuesday to Eater Austin and wrote that they’ve placed Arnold on a leave of absence while it conducts an internal investigation. It didn’t know about the allegations before Arnold joined the company in March and learned about this current batch of accusations on Friday.
LEYE runs more than 120 restaurants including Sushi-san, Ema, and Summer House Santa Monica. Wong’s prior experience includes working with wine and spirits, which she says uniquely qualified her to work as Arnold’s primary publicist. Arnold was working on opening LEYE’s first wine bar, Bar Ramone, which opened in August 2018 in River North.
“I spoke the language without having to Google it,” Wong said.
The complaint includes Wong’s account of what happened to her and Arnold on the night of November 5, 2018. Arnold allegedly invited Wong to his apartment to talk about a media inquiry that would have sent both of them to New Zealand on behalf of a winemaker. The two drank Champagne and headed to dinner at Owen & Engine in Logan Square. After their meal, according to the complaint, Wong realized she left her keys at Arnold’s place. They returned to his apartment and Arnold opened a bottle of wine.
The two sat on a couch and Arnold kissed Wong, according to the complaint. She reciprocated initially but, according to the complaint, “after a few moments, and clearly withdrawing any consent to participate in any sexual activity with Mr. Arnold, she stated to Mr. Arnold ‘no.’”
Arnold allegedly ignored Wong and lifted her shirt and bra and groped her. He continued to kiss her, according to the complaint, and forced his hands down Wong’s jeans to sexually assault her. Wong, worried Arnold could overpower her, told him she was menstruating and that gave him enough pause and Wong enough time to get off the couch and call an Uber, according to the complaint. While waiting for her ride, she called a coworker and told them her story, according to the complaint.
Wong told Eater that she didn’t file a police report because, as a publicist, she worried how the story would be spun and wasn’t prepared for the scrutiny. She didn’t want to be labeled as a troublemaker. She said that she’s well aware that LEYE, a hugely influential player both nationally and locally, could affect her career prospects and she didn’t want to mess with that.
According to the complaint, Arnold and Wong didn’t communicate until five days after the alleged incident. Arnold, as Wong saw it, began harboring “malicious intent” toward her, she said. According to the lawsuit, he contacted her on November 10, 2018, and told her he changed his mind on posing for a magazine photoshoot that Wong arranged “with the intention to intimidate Ms. Wong into conversation with him.”
On November 12, 2018, Wong met with her supervisor and LEYE’s vice president of marketing to share her story, according to the complaint. They referred Wong to HR, which arranged a meeting with LEYE’s director of HR. She allegedly told Wong that firing Arnold “would be drastic” and asked if an apology from Arnold would suffice, according to the complaint. A second meeting with HR happened on November 14, 2018.
LEYE then placed Wong on paid leave on November 21, 2018 and on November 26, 2018, “other LEYE employees began performing the core and essential tasks of Wong’s job, constructively terminating her position,” according to the complaint.
After her departure from LEYE, Wong moved to California. She’s since moved to New York, where she is working in public relations again. She still worries about LEYE’s influence on her future career endeavors. But she’s now confident and prepared to deal with any fallout from publicly talking about her experience. She hopes to spark a policy change, to prevent other women from enduring what she did so “they don’t sweep this under the rug, like they did with me.”
LEYE provided this statement from Jay Stieber, executive vice president and general counsel:
We care deeply for our employees and our reputation is built on integrity, transparency and strong values. Although we cannot comment on pending litigation we took every appropriate step to investigate and respond to Ms. Wong’s concerns the moment they were brought to our attention. We are committed to the principle that every employee shares a mutual responsibility to treat each other with respect and dignity, and to providing a work environment that is free of harassment of any kind.
The statement doesn’t mention the reasons behind Wong’s departure. When asked on Tuesday, Stieber emailed in, writing that he cannot comment further on pending litigation or personnel matters.
Arnold wasn’t immediately reached for comment. A court date has yet to be scheduled.