Law firm partner’s 'disgusting and dirty' behavior at strip club constituted sex harassment, lawyer's suit says
A lawsuit accuses the managing director of a Fresno, California, law firm of taking firm employees to a strip club, where he simulated oral sex, paid for alcohol with a corporate credit card and encouraged an associate to place dollar bills in strippers’ panties.
The now-former associate, Michelle Ritchie, is the plaintiff in the July 1 sexual-harassment lawsuit. She says the incident happened after a Dec. 10, 2021, Christmas party at the workers’ compensation defense firm Yrulegui & Roberts in Fresno, California.
The party continued at a sports bar at the invitation of partner and Fresno managing director Joseph Yrulegui, according to the lawsuit. After several hours at the sports bar, Yrulegui “instructed” several employees to take Uber or Lyft to the strip club City Lights, the lawsuit alleges.
The suit says Yrulegui intentionally provided excessive alcohol to Ritchie “and subjected her to unwanted sexual contact by proxy. He encouraged and paid for a lap dance with a stripper and subjected her to his offensive simulated sexual acts with the various strippers. This was unwanted and done for the purposes of sexually gratifying Yrulegui, humiliating plaintiff and sexual grooming. Further, the conduct was done in the presence of plaintiff’s co-employees which additionally damaged plaintiff’s future relationships with the co-employees.”
Ritchie “had never been to a strip club before and did not realize how tacky and degrading it was for the women working there, herself and her fellow employees,” her lawsuit states.
While at the strip club, Ritchie and other employees discussed how “disgusting and dirty” Yrulegui’s behavior was, the suit says. The employees “also were embarrassed, humiliated and uncomfortable” with the partner’s actions.
Ritchie’s father arrived at the strip club after becoming concerned because he noticed Ritchie’s cellphone location there. He sat away from the group, saw Yrulegui’s actions and then confronted him.
Ritchie says she left the club “in tears” and was driven home by her father. Ritchie says she concluded that she could no longer work at the law firm and was “constructively discharged.”
The suit alleges that Ritchie reported the incident to the law firm’s president, who told her that she had no reason to complain because she voluntarily went to the strip club. She says the law firm hired a lawyer who told her that she would be blacklisted in the Fresno, California, area if she filed a lawsuit.
Ritchie, a Chapman University law graduate, was making $90,000 at the time of the incident, according to the lawsuit. Her employment at Yrulegui & Roberts was her first job as an attorney.
The suit alleges sex discrimination, harassment, retaliation and failure to remedy discrimination under California law. It also alleges infliction of emotional distress.
The suit says the law firm knew of Yrulegui’s “propensity to conduct himself in a sexually inappropriate manner” because of his social media posts. She attached examples.
Defendants in the suit are Yrulegui and Yrulegui & Roberts.
Yrulegui was not in the office when the ABA Journal called for comment. He did not immediately respond to an email. Senior partner Stephen B. Roberts also did not immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s email.
The Fresno Bee had coverage of the lawsuit.
Yrulegui’s lawyer, Howard Sagaser, told the Fresno Bee that the incident was “a voluntary social outing” that was blown out of proportion. He also denied that Yrulegui & Roberts tried to interfere with Ritchie’s job search.