Janeka Samuels wants to put her past behind her; she wants to put San Luis Obispo behind her; she wants to put the media behind her.
The problem is that her lawsuit against Chipotle is still very much in front of her. On April 6, Samuels’ case against Chipotle and her former regional manager Ben DeBilzan is scheduled to be heard in SLO County Superior Court, and she will be asked to defend against Chipotle’s motion to have the case dismissed—if she shows.
At the last two court dates, Samuels failed to appear. According to Chipotle’s attorney, Charles Cavanagh, she wasn’t responding to him either. (Cavanagh didn’t return phone and email requests from New Times for comment.) In the months since Samuels’ case went public, following the New Times article, “Fed up,” she’s moved out of the area, parted ways with her attorney, and declined to comment on a case that she previously spoke about in print, on television, and on the radio.
On Nov. 24, 2014, Samuels’ former attorney Jeffrey Stulberg left the case, and Samuels signed the paperwork to represent herself about one week later. Stulberg said he couldn’t comment beyond confirming that he no longer represents Samuels. Shortly after losing Stulberg, Samuels explained the shift to New Times: “It’s just that I feel that I need a better attorney.” She added that she was in talks with a new one and had no further comment.
As of press time, however, she hadn’t hired a new attorney, according to court documents. Another attorney who’s representing Samuels’ separate but related class action lawsuit against Chipotle in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, Mike Arias, didn’t return phone and email requests for comment. Furthermore, Samuels didn’t return repeated voicemails seeking comment until New Times reached her by text message.
“Can u please stop harassing me,” she texted. “If I didn call u back then I don’t wanna talk SLO is my past and im choosing to leave it there. Please do not contact me again.”
In her local case, Samuels alleged a number of labor law violations during her 2010-2013 stint at Chipotle, specifically alleging that her former supervisor made racist remarks toward her (Samuels is black). Perhaps most notably, she alleged in a complaint to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing that DeBilzan “told me that he wanted to hang me because I wasn’t understanding what he was telling me.” She gave a similar account during an interview with New Times—as well as with other local media—and the incident was confirmed by another former Chipotle employee in a phone interview, as well as by another former employee in a sworn statement.
But asked about the sworn statement via a Facebook message (her listed number was no longer active), the former employee said she didn’t write it. She declined to comment on the record, citing her own legal issues, and didn’t respond to further requests about whether the content of the statement was accurate, even if she didn’t write it.
After New Times and other media reported on the case, several people took to social media and claimed they had worked with Samuels and that she was abusive to employees. Some, including DeBilzan’s wife, alleged via Facebook that Samuels had fabricated stories about being the target of racism. DeBilzan’s wife also posted comments criticizing New Times for presenting only one side of the story, and kicking off a media frenzy. She also noted that her husband had been advised to maintain media silence about the lawsuit.
In response to those and similar statements, New Times again contacted Samuels’ former manager, Jake Whiddon, to ask him about his account of the alleged incident when Samuels claims DeBilzan threatened to hang her from the Chipotle sign. Whiddon confirmed his account of the incident once again during a phone interview, and again when pressed further via text messages.
“With all due respect, no thanks,” Whiddon wrote when asked for another phone interview. “I stand by my word. I know what I saw, and I know that people have been trying to sweep this story under the rug for a while. If someone else made a false statement, I can’t help you.”
He added that he was scheduled to give a deposition for the case, but it was canceled the day before he was supposed to appear.
Another former employee whose name was included in a sworn statement for Samuels’ case, Suzy Medina, said she provided Samuels with a written statement, but that she didn’t write the typed version New Times presented her. Medina said the grammar looked like Samuels’ and not her own, but confirmed that the information on the statement was accurate.
She was surprised after local media picked up the story of Samuels’ case, largely because she didn’t recall DeBilzan ever making racial statements.
“There were many times that [Samuels] would say racial comments to me or one of my coworkers,” she said. “… Reading about it was the first time I had ever heard of Ben doing that to her.”
Medina said Samuels contacted her and asked if she would submit a statement about working long hours off the clock, which Medina said she had witnessed and experienced during her time at Chipotle in SLO. But “she never mentioned to me the whole racial allegations.”
The current legal battles against Chipotle go beyond Samuels’ own case. According to federal court records, Samuels was scheduled to give a deposition for a case filed by her former coworker, Tedi Roberts. The deposition was supposed to take place on Feb. 6, but was delayed due to scheduling conflicts. Then Roberts and Chipotle reached a settlement on Feb. 4, and there’s no record that Samuels ever gave a deposition.
Roberts alleged in her lawsuit that she was forced to work overtime, but wasn’t paid for it, and that she wasn’t provided legally mandated breaks. Samuels made similar allegations in her lawsuit. Moreover, Roberts claimed she was sexually harassed while working at Chipotle, though she didn’t identify in court documents at which branch she worked, nor the name of the person who allegedly harassed her.
Roberts claimed a Chipotle employee made unwanted sexual advances, “which included slapping Plaintiff on her bottom,” “another incident when the same Defendant’s [Chipotle] employee slapped Plaintiff on her bottom when Plaintiff bent down to tie her shoelaces,” and “Defendant’s manager taunted Plaintiff with comments such as: ‘You still have buns.’ and ‘Batter up, Babe Ruth.’”
Chipotle denied all the allegations, and the case was officially dismissed March 17 when the Central District of California court accepted the settlement reached during mediation.
Locally, other former Chipotle employees have filed lawsuits against the chain restaurant. Zachary Williams filed a complaint on Feb. 27, alleging disability discrimination and retaliation, as well as wrongful termination after he was fired following a car accident injury. Anthony Ianni filed a lawsuit on May 7, 2014, in which he claimed Chipotle failed to pay him overtime, pay timely earned wages, pay for meal and rest periods, or provide accurate wage statements.
Chipotle denied the allegations listed in both cases. Williams’ case is scheduled for a July 2 case management conference, and Ianni is scheduled to take his case to trial on Nov. 2.
In fact, the same attorney who represented Roberts, Santa Monica-based Lawrence Freiman, is representing Ianni. Freiman didn’t return calls for comment.
Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at [email protected].