Copper Cellar employee sues owner for sexual harassment

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Knoxville businessman Mike Chase, who is a possible candidate for Knoxville mayor, is named in a $14 million sexual harassment suit filed by one of his employees at the Copper Cellar Corporation.

The suit, filed in Knox County Circuit Court on January 9, outlines what plaintiff Ana Tipton-Budzynski claims is “a severe and pervasive sexual harassment hostile work environment where the alleged perpetrator is the owner (Defendant Mike Chase)."

“Some current and former Copper Cellar Corporation female employees state that Defendant Chase’s/others’ Copper Cellar sexual harassment and, upon further information and belief, sexual assault over the years has been so pervasive that possibly as much as 80% of it never gets reported.” The lawsuit does not elaborate on the basis of this statement.

Also named in the suit is Rick Eldridge, described in documents as “the Human Resources (HR) Director at all pertinent times.”

According to court filings, on December 18, 2018, Chase and two other friends were at Copper Cellar West Restaurant for food and drinks.

Tipton-Budzynski claims she and another female server were serving Chase’s table. “The intoxicated Defendant Chase sexually harassed Plaintiff Ana Tipton-Budzynski,” the lawsuit states. Court filings describe at least seven sexual comments Chase allegedly made towards Tipton-Budzynski and the other female server, as well as other comments Chase allegedly made to other female members of the Copper Cellar staff.

The same night, the court filing states Tipton-Budzynski made a formal sexual harassment complaint to her assistant manager, who sent an e-mail to the restaurant’s general manager.

Tipton-Budzynski said she met with Eldridge, described in the suit as “HR Director,” twice on undisclosed days. While Eldridge allegedly said there would be an investigation, the suit states an independent investigation did not occur, and Copper Cellar’s attorneys investigated the sexual harassment claims. After the investigation, the lawsuit states that Tipton-Budzyski was not made aware of disciplinary action, if any was taken against Chase.

On Friday, December 28, the suit says Tipton-Budzynski reached out to Eldridge to find out the resolution of the investigation. The lawsuit claims Eldridge said the situation had been addressed, Chase had been asked to “stay away from (Tipton-Budzynski)” but that she would not be told if Chase would be “held accountable for his sexual harassment.”

Tipton-Budzynski’s husband, Alexander, is also listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Court documents claim Alexander Budzynski suffered “severe emotional distress.”

Tipton-Budzynski and her husband have asked for $3.5 million in compensatory damages and $10.5 million in punitive damages.

Chase told WVLT News there is no comment on the lawsuit.

The Copper Cellar Corporation includes Calhoun’s, Cappuccino’s, Cherokee Grill, Chesapeake’s, Copper Cellar, Smoky Mountain Brewery and Corner 16.