A former manager at Chickie's & Pete's sports bar in Egg Harbor, N.J., has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the sports bar chain, saying she was fired when she complained that its pay practices were illegal.
Sharon Chase, 45, of Absecon, N.J., answered questions posed by a federal investigator who visited the restaurant on Nov. 28, according to the lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Camden.
Chase "provided information about defendants' wage practices which she reasonably believed were in violation" of federal and state laws, the suit said.
On Jan. 11, 2013, she was terminated.
The suit also names chain owner Peter Ciarrocchi Jr.
"We believe the allegations are unfounded, and we intend to vigorously defend against them in federal court," said a spokesman for the chain, Kevin Feeley.
Ciarrocchi's parents founded Chickie's & Pete's in 1977 as a Mayfair taproom. Dubbed the nation's top sports bar by ESPN, the chain now has 10 outlets, plus stands at Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park, employing 1,000, Feeley said.
Chase's lawsuit hints at a potential defense for Chickie's & Pete's. Just before she was fired, Chase was "falsely accused . . . of undercharging customers for private parties," the suit said.
As of March, the U.S. Labor Department was looking into wage practices at the chain, an official said, but no update was available Wednesday afternoon. Several months ago, the chain initiated new payroll practices in response to the investigation.
So far, an estimated 80 current and former Chickie's & Pete's former employees are listed as plaintiffs in a group of related class-action lawsuits - suits alleging tip-skimming that could yield several million dollars in damages.
Most of those plaintiffs are servers or bartenders, but Chase's suit is different because she was a manager at Chickie & Pete's from February 2010 until she lost her job.
Managers walk a particularly difficult path in these kinds of circumstances, said lawyer Richard Schall, who has practiced employment law on the employee side since 1988.
"There is an expectation of management, that you do what management tells you to do," said Schall, a partner with Schall & Barasch in Moorestown.
On the other hand, managers suing under whistle-blower laws can have a tough time proving their cases if they were the ones who should have been stopping the practice, said Steven W. Suflas, a management-side lawyer with Ballard Spahr in the firm's Cherry Hill office.
"When it is the supervisor who is responsible for rectifying the problem, they are not whistle-blowers," he said. "They are just doing their jobs."
Chase is represented by the lead attorney in the other lawsuits, Louis Pechman of Berke-Weiss & Pechman in New York City.