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The Byrne Report
Last week, I drove to Sacramento to meet with a group of angry women. They are former employees of the Thunder Valley Casino in southern Placer County. The gambling operation is owned by the United Auburn Indian Community (UAIC) and managed by Station Casinos of Las Vegas, Nev. In Sonoma County, Station is partnering with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to clone its Thunder Valley Casino outside of Rohnert Park.
In November, seven non-Indian women filed a civil lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court against the UAIC tribe, Station Casinos and a Thunder Valley Casino executive named Curtis Broome. The causes of action are sexual harassment, failure to pay overtime and regular wages, gender and age discrimination, violation of California disability and family-leave laws, and retaliation.
Last week, four of the plaintiffs talked about why they sued Thunder Valley. These are some brave people. No union or government agency backs them up. They are afraid, they are hurt and they are dead set on obtaining justice. They believe that the duty of government to protect workers from harm should extend to Indian-owned casinos. Yet their lawsuit may never have its day in court.
The Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution grants authority over the Indian nations to Congress, which long used that power to curtail Indian sovereignty. In 1988, Congress partially restored tribal sovereignty, primarily to facilitate the expansion of casino gambling. Subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tribes are generally exempt from the reach of civil litigation inside their reservations. State law enforcement can generally intrude only to enforce the penal code. The Thunder Valley women's allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment highlight the issue of Native American sovereignty vs. individual civil rights. At its core is the question of whether a non-Indian-owned corporation, such as Station Casinos, can be immunized from civil penalties because it is partnered with a tribe.
Speaking for her colleagues, plaintiff Cynthia Walden says, "The main picture here is that our constitutional rights are being violated, and our biggest fight is to get these laws of sovereign immunity amended and our constitutional rights as working women reinstated."
Walden, 36, worked as a copy writer in the marketing department at Thunder Valley. She was passed over for a promotion, she alleges, in favor of a less qualified male. After she complained of gender discrimination, she was fired. She also claims that Curtis Broome, then the manager of information technology at the casino, made sexually inappropriate remarks to her. Plaintiff Amarissa Dillhyon, who worked in the casino bar, echoes her claim, alleging that she was demoted after she complained about Broome "forcefully kissing [her] while grabbing [her] ass" against her will.
But it is Sundi Lyons, 40, who has the most heartbreaking tale. For $2,500 a month plus health benefits, she worked the casino floor as an "ambassador," greeting customers, taking care of complaints, handing out Station Casino's trademark "boarding passes."
(Customers wear the passes--computer data storage cards--on wires around their necks. Lured by the promise of a free meal if they lose a lot, customers insert the cards into video-slot machines, allowing management to track their play. Station has a much harder time keeping track of its executives' bad habits.)
Lyons alleges, in excruciating detail, a series of nonconsensual sexual encounters with Broome, who repeatedly forced his way upon her in his office. "Plaintiff submitted to having sex with defendant Curtis Broome out of fear of losing her employment benefits," the lawsuit states. Lyons says she was terrified of losing her family's health insurance. She has four children, one with epilepsy. She went to great lengths to avoid Broome, changing her hours, hiding from him, protesting that she was married when he cornered her.
In despair, she resigned and told management about the sexual violence. She alleges that Broome and another man then "broke into [her] backyard and terrorized [her] with attempts to gain entrance into [her] home." Lyons asserts that the lead investigator for UAIC Tribal Gaming exonerated Broome after an internal investigation. (Thunder Valley officials say that Broome is no longer with the casino.)
"My family is in shock," Lyons says.
Given the seriousness of the sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit, combined with Station Casino's poor track record in complying with financial disclosure laws, as revealed previously in this space, is it time for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to dump Station Casinos and its owners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta?
Greg Sarris, chairman of the Graton Indians, says he will eventually talk to me about the casino. In the meantime, Station Casinos is casting Lyons and her sister plaintiffs as "disgruntled ex-employees."
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From the April 6-12, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.