In October 2020, L.H. started working at a Pittsburgh-area McDonald’s at just 14 years old. Because she was under 18, she needed a work permit signed by her parents and school in order to work during the school year. Things went fine for the first few weeks, until January when the manager on her shift changed. Walter Garner, then 41, started sexually harassing her and two other minor employees and made sexually explicit comments, including innuendos about a spilled milkshake and saying that he wanted her “to be his Happy Meal” (a detail first reported by Mother Jones.) Garner’s verbal harassment escalated to brushing against L.H., touching her hair, and asking to see her after work. The location’s hiring manager spoke to L.H. and the two other girls over the phone about Garner’s harassment, but nothing happened—Garner even continued to work the same shift as L.H.
The harassment escalated to rape in February 2021. Garner followed L.H. into the McDonald’s bathroom during her shift, grabbed her, pulled off her uniform and forced himself on her. According to the lawsuit L.H. and her parents filed against McDonald’s in September, she went into shock, wanted to forget the whole thing happened, and kept working for Garner. He later pleaded guilty and was convicted of indecent assault on a child.
While investigating an unrelated cash register theft, the location’s owner, hiring manager, and another manager watched security footage of Garner groping L.H. They talked to him about the incident, but didn’t discipline him. Garner continued harassing her and coerced her into sexual acts outside of work. Garner only faced consequences when he showed photos of himself and L.H. to another minor employee he was targeting, and that girl told her school, which called the police immediately. Garner was arrested in April and charged with a felony and three misdemeanors.
Only then did the McDonald’s franchise fire him.
Later, L.H. learned that since 2004, Garner has been registered as a lifetime sex offender under Megan’s Law in Pennsylvania for a 2003 conviction of aggravated indecent assault on a 10-year-old girl. After Garner’s arrest and firing, the owner of the location, Michele Rice, and other managers apologized to L.H. and for the first time showed her training videos about the company’s position on sexual harassment and how to report it. Sexual harassment training is not mandated at franchised locations like the one where L.H. worked.
L.H. and her parents sued McDonald’s Corporation and the franchisee, Rice Enterprises LLC, in September, alleging negligence for allegedly failing to perform background checks or training employees on how to identify and report sexual harassment. They’re requesting a jury trial and seeking punitive damages. The complaint details that in 2003, Garner pleaded guilty to sexual assault and served prison time for crime. Last month, Garner pled guilty to statutory sexual assault and was sentenced to four to 10 years in prison and five years’ probation. He’s listed as currently incarcerated on the Megan’s Law website.
McDonald’s has faced intense scrutiny—and dozens of lawsuits—in recent years for allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation against women employees. (During the cycle of bad press, the company notoriously “celebrated” 2018 International Women’s Day by turning its M logo upside-down to a W.) About 95 percent of McDonald’s stores globally are franchises, and these claims have highlighted how its franchise model allows owners and McDonald’s Corporate to point the finger at each other for training standards and work environments. L.H. didn’t realize that she had been working at a franchise, not a location owned and operated by McDonald’s corporate, but the suit targets both entities by alleging that McDonald’s exerts high levels of control over its locations. Mother Jones’ deep dive this week explains how franchise models allow companies to skirt liability for sexual harassment, using L.H.’s case as an example.
Alan Perer, the attorney representing L.H. and her parents, told Jezebel that in other cases, McDonald’s has claimed that it’s not responsible for sexual harassment and other labor issues at franchised locations. He said it’s hard to believe that a corporation that tightly controls its food standards is not also responsible for employees’ safety—especially as the company specifically recruits teenage girls. “Every [McDonald’s] billboard I see around town is ‘let this be your first job,’ and there’s pictures of teenage girls on them,” Perer said in a phone interview. “McDonald’s is luring these young women and their families to let these young girls go to work and then say, ‘you’re coming to McDonald’s, but we’re not responsible for making it safe for your children to work here.”
The problem isn’t limited to McDonald’s restaurants: In November 2019, the company fired its former CEO, Steve Easterbrook, for dating an employee, but still gave him an exit package worth more than $40 million. It turned out that Easterbrook was involved with not one but three employees in the year before he was fired and he gave one of them shares of company stock worth thousands of dollars; McDonald’s is currently suing him for allegedly lying to the board about the extent of his relationships.
McDonald’s Corporation said in a statement to Jezebel:
“Sexual harassment in the workplace is an affront to everything we stand for as a System. Everyone who is part of McDonald’s should be able to confidently show up to work each day in a place that is safe, respectful and inclusive. McDonald’s is implementing Global Brand Standards at all McDonald’s restaurants worldwide to ensure everyone understands and acts under a common set of McDonald’s expectations for a safe and respectful workplace in both our company-owned and franchised restaurants.”
Attorney Kara Lattanzio provided this statement to Jezebel on behalf of Rice, owner of Rice Enterprises, LLC, which operates eight McDonald’s in and around Pittsburgh:
“The allegations made in the lawsuit are deeply disturbing—my organization has no tolerance for sexual harassment and we terminated the employee in question as soon as we learned about a complaint against him. I was not aware of any prior allegations of harassment. All of our employees undergo safe and respectful workplace training. We have fully cooperated with the police investigation and have offered our full support to the impacted employee.”
Perer said the evidence will show that it’s not true that Rice Enterprises fired Garner as soon as they learned about harassment complaints, since L.H. spoke about him to the hiring manager and Rice and others saw him grope L.H. on security footage before he was arrested.
It’s not clear when exactly Rice Enterprises hired Garner or whether they performed a background check—just two of the details Perer hopes to find out during the case’s discovery phase. But regardless of the timing, he said, the company still failed. “If they did [do a background check] and hired him and didn’t carefully keep him away from young women that he was managing, they’re liable, and if they didn’t, they’re liable,” he said. “There’s no good answer.” (Perer said that, based on conversations he’s had with other young female employees, he believes Garner was hired sometime in 2020.)
Perer added that he was shocked when attorneys for Rice Enterprises argued in preliminary objections filed in October that L.H. and her family shouldn’t be able to seek punitive damages since, under Pennsylvania law, those are reserved for conduct that is “outrageous or in reckless indifference to the rights of others.”
“[It] is kind of unbelievable that an attorney would actually file something like that on behalf of McDonald’s, on behalf of any defense, to say, ‘a known sexual offender raped a 14-year-old employee in the bathroom there and that’s not an outrageous situation,’” Perer said. (McDonald’s Corporation hasn’t yet filed any statements in the case.)
When L.H.’s parents called Perer to seek advice after Garner’s arrest, he said the allegations were so stunning to him that he was in disbelief. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ I was incredulous that this could happen at a McDonald’s, and there would be such a lack of safety precautions and procedures there,” Perer said. “Then I get the police complaint and I read what it’s in there and I said, ‘Everything you told me is true.’”
In August 2019, McDonald’s announced it would require sexual harassment training at its corporate-owned locations in the U.S., with the resources being “made available” to franchisees—meaning it was optional for franchised locations. McDonald’s then announced in April of this year that all 39,000 locations worldwide would be required to train workers on harassment, discrimination and violence, and will start evaluating stores in January 2022.
Perer said training isn’t enough. “In this case, employees did complain to other managers at the store, and nothing was done.” Franchises need full-blown HR departments, mandatory background checks, and hotlines where people can report harassment, even anonymously if they want, he said.
“If I were a parent in this country, after I read this case, I would be very hesitant to let my under-18 daughter work at a McDonald’s,” Perer said.