It’s not unusual for strippers to sue strip clubs. As independent contractors, it’s sometimes the only recourse they have.
What is unusual is for a strip club to sue a stripper, which is what Sassy’s, one of Portland’s most popular clubs, has done.
The club’s parent company, R & R Restaurants Inc., filed a defamation suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Sept. 9 against Cat Hollis, a former dancer at the Southeast Portland club who led the PDX Stripper Strike, a movement that became a workers’ aid nonprofit called the Haymarket Pole Collective.
The lawsuit concerns quotes that Hollis and their attorney, Amanda Marshall, gave to The Oregonian in a September 2021 story about multiple misclassification suits filed against Oregon strip clubs. (Hollis, who uses they/them pronouns, is the plaintiff in a federal worker misclassification suit against Sassy’s filed last summer that alleges the club wrongfully treated dancers as employees.)
Hollis told the paper that some nights they’d walk out with nothing, and Marshall said that dancing talent wasn’t a prerequisite for getting a job stripping at Sassy’s. In the same story, Marshall—a former U.S. attorney for Oregon—also told the paper that Frank Faillace, a co-owner of Sassy’s who has ownership stakes in multiple Portland clubs and venues, blackballed Hollis from working at his other clubs after the Sassy’s lawsuit was filed.
The lawsuit says by making those statements, Hollis and their attorney 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, like those examples we cited in the complaint, Sassy’s believes is false and demeaning to those women,” he wrote. “Our clients seek to protect their performers and business by holding people accountable for such statements. Sassy’s also believes any suggestion that Sassy’s performers do not receive significant benefit financially from their effort, 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 its work opposing labor organizing (it represents Starbucks against unionizing workers and locally represents Schoolhouse Electric as production workers there seek a union).
“The case filed by Sassy’s against Hollis is clear retaliation,” Marshall says. “It flies in the face of state anti-SLAPP [strategic lawsuits against public participation] and federal retaliation statutes, which we will use to fight their spurious claim. We won’t let bullies from union-busting law firms trample on the rights of working people.”
A defamation case requires that statements be false and do harm, says attorney Lake Perriguey, who represented dancers with wage and discrimination claims against Casa Diablo in 2015. Those clients were quoted in local and national media about their working conditions.
Perriguey sees the lawsuit is part of a national pattern of using the courts to silence people from discussing how they were treated. He hears echoes of the inescapable defamation trial earlier this year between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.
“Whether it’s environmental activists or fair wage activists or any other kind of advocate or plaintiff seeking to redress a wrong, it’s a tactic, a strategy to scare people from coming forward,” Perriguey says. “We’ve seen it a lot [when] women who allege that they’ve been abused are then sued for defamation. I’m not saying [Hollis] was abused—they were a worker. I’m just saying we saw that play out in the Heard-Depp situation.”
That Sassy’s has taken the step of suing Portland’s most visible advocate for Black dancers is noteworthy for its power dynamics. It also provides a window into the labor upheaval rocking strip clubs up and down the West Coast.
An interesting detail of Hollis’ case, and several others in Oregon courts, is that they’re connected to a California law firm that’s been running a social media campaign to enlist plaintiffs to sue strip clubs. That’s how Hollis ended up filing suit against Sassy’s—after seeing a post on Instagram in the summer of 2021 seeking dancers for suits against multiple Oregon clubs.
Meanwhile, dancers in Oregon worry about the possible unintended consequences of misclassification lawsuits like Hollis’, after two chains of clubs in California used them as a rationale for imposing employee status on dancers in a manner that cut their income drastically by creating private dance quotas.
The series of events in California, where class action settlements with strip clubs were followed in short order by state law changing the definition of independent contractor status, are very different from what’s happening in Oregon so far, but the impact on dancers there was so drastic that they might get their first unionized club since the 1990s.
“What happened in California is pretty terrifying to dancers in Oregon because we’re not very far away,” says Jane, a dancer who’s worked in Portland for more than a decade, and spoke to WW on condition of anonymity. “I’ve been nervous about that for several years because every dancer I know in L.A. has quit or found a second job. It kind of destroyed their income.”
Hollis is a key figure advocating for Portland stripper and sex worker rights because they launched the PDX Stripper Strike two years ago.
Although its name evoked a work stoppage, the PDX Stripper Strike of 2020 wasn’t focused on getting dancers employee wages or protections. As with its predecessor in New York in 2015, it called on clubs to address racist hiring and scheduling practices and sexual harassment and assault on the job. In its current form as Haymarket Pole Collective, it’s a nonprofit focused on distributing grant money to sex workers of color and connecting them to services like culturally specific therapy.
The public record shows that Sassy’s isn’t the only club they’ve brought allegations of retaliation against.
Hollis and another plaintiff have an open federal civil rights complaint against Club 205 alleging retaliation for raising issues of race and sex discrimination at the club as part of their involvement with the Stripper Strike. Their prior actions through the National Labor Review Board against Club 205 and The Venue have been settled in the dancers’ favor, requiring clubs to fork over back pay and post notices about dancers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
There are signs the stripper strike moved the needle in Portland. One of Faillace’s other venues, the Kit Kat Club, started an inclusive “all bodies, all genders” stripping night called Kit-N-Kaboodle, and Sinferno’s bookings have also become more diverse.
Hollis declined to comment on their case, or to provide other Haymarket Pole representatives to comment.
Disclosure: The author of this story has danced at several Portland clubs, but not at any of the clubs discussed in this story.