It is not uncommon for strippers to sue strip clubs. As independent contractors, this is sometimes their only recourse.
What’s unusual is for a strip club to sue a stripper, which Sassy’s, one of Portland’s most popular strip clubs, did.
The club’s parent company, R&R Restaurants Inc., filed a libel suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Sept. 9 against Cat Hollis, a former dancer with the Southeast Portland club who ran the PDX Stripper Strike, a movement that became a labor movement. non-profit aid called Haymarket Pole Collective.
The lawsuit concerns subpoenas that Hollis and their attorney, Amanda Marshall, gave to The Oregonian in a September 2021 article about multiple misclassification lawsuits filed against strip clubs in Oregon. (Hollis, who uses those pronouns, is the plaintiff in a federal worker misclassification lawsuit against Sassy filed last summer that alleges the club improperly treated the dancers as employees.)
Hollis told the newspaper that some nights they went out with nothing, and Marshall said dancing talent was not a prerequisite for getting a job as a stripper at Sassy. In the same story, Marshall – a former U.S. attorney from Oregon – also told the newspaper that Frank Faillace, a co-owner of Sassy’s who has stakes in several Portland clubs and venues, banned Hollis from working at his other clubs after Sassy’s. lawsuit has been filed.
The lawsuit says that by making these statements, Hollis and their lawyer defamed the club.
The attorney representing R&R Restaurants, Anthony Kuchulis, provided WW with a statement on behalf of Sassy’s. “Any suggestion that Sassy’s performers are not creative or skilled in their work, such as those examples we cited in the complaint, is false and humiliating to these women,” he wrote. “Our clients seek to protect their performers and their business by holding people accountable for such statements. Sassy’s also believes that any suggestion that Sassy’s artists do not derive significant financial benefit from their efforts, talent, and independent business skills is also false.
Marshall says Sassy’s is trying to muzzle a prominent local activist. And she points out that Kuchulis’ law firm, Littler Mendelson, has a reputation for opposing unionization (he represents Starbucks against worker unionization and locally represents Schoolhouse Electric as production workers seek to unionize ).
“The case Sassy’s filed against Hollis is clearly a retaliatory action,” Marshall said. “It goes against the anti-SLAPP state [strategic lawsuits against public participation] and federal retaliatory laws, which we will use to combat their spurious claims. We will not let the bullies of anti-union law firms trample workers’ rights.
A defamation case demands statements be false and harmful, says attorney Lake Perriguey, who represented dancers in wage and discrimination claims against Casa Diablo in 2015. Those clients were quoted in local and national media at about their working conditions.
Perriguey sees the lawsuit as part of a national pattern of using the courts to prevent people from discussing how they were treated. He hears echoes of the must-see libel lawsuit earlier this year between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.
“Whether it’s environmental activists or fair pay activists or any other kind of lawyer or plaintiff looking to right a wrong, it’s a tactic, a strategy to scare people away from coming forward” , says Perriguey. “We have seen it a lot [when] women who claim to have been abused are then sued for defamation. I do not say [Hollis] was abused—she was a worker. I’m just saying we saw that play out in the Heard-Depp situation.
The fact that Sassy’s made the decision to sue Portland’s most visible advocate for black dancers is notable for its power dynamic. It also provides a window into the labor upheaval rocking strip clubs along the West Coast.
An interesting detail about the Hollis case, and several others in the Oregon courts, is that they are linked to a California law firm that ran a social media campaign to enlist the plaintiffs to sue the strip clubs. That’s how Hollis ended up filing a lawsuit against Sassy’s – after seeing a post on Instagram in the summer of 2021 seeking dancers for lawsuits against several clubs in Oregon.
Meanwhile, Oregon dancers are worried about the potential unintended consequences of misclassification lawsuits like Hollis’s, after two California club chains used them as justification to impose employee status on dancers. in a way that drastically reduced their income by creating private dance quotas.
The series of events in California, where class action settlements with strip clubs were quickly followed by state law changing the definition of independent contractor status, are very different from this is happening in Oregon so far, but the impact on dancers was so drastic they could have their first unionized club since the 1990s.
“What happened in California is pretty terrifying for dancers in Oregon because we’re not that far away,” says Jane, a dancer who has worked in Portland for more than a decade, and spoke to with WW on condition of anonymity. “I was nervous about this for several years because every dancer I know in LA quit or got second jobs. It kind of destroyed their income.
Hollis is a key figure in Portland’s stripper and sex worker advocacy, as they launched the PDX Stripper Strike two years ago.
Although its name conjures up a work stoppage, the 2020 PDX stripper strike was not about winning pay or protections for the strippers’ employees. As with his predecessor in New York in 2015, he called on clubs to tackle racist hiring and scheduling practices, as well as sexual harassment and assault at work. In its current form as the Haymarket Pole Collective, it is a non-profit organization focused on distributing grants to sex workers of color and connecting them to services like culturally specific therapy.
The public record shows that Sassy’s is not the only club against which they have made allegations of retaliation.
Hollis and another plaintiff have an open federal civil rights complaint against the 205 Club, alleging retaliation for raising issues of racial and gender discrimination at the club in connection with their involvement in the strippers’ strike. Their earlier actions through the National Labor Review Board against Club 205 and The Venue were settled in favor of the dancers, forcing the clubs to pay back wages and publish notices of dancers’ rights in under national labor relations law.
There are signs that the strippers’ strike has moved the needle in Portland. One of Faillace’s other venues, the Kit Kat Club, has launched an all-body, all-gender inclusive strip party called Kit-N-Kaboodle, and Sinferno’s bookings have also branched out.
Hollis declined to comment on their case, or provide other Haymarket Pole representatives for comment.
Disclosure: The author of this story has danced at several clubs in Portland, but not at any of the clubs featured in this story.