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Nightclub executive, company hit with sexual harassment lawsuit

Updated Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010 | 12:41 a.m.

Click to enlarge photo

King of clubs: Michael Morton, co-founder of the N9NE Group, is shown at Nove Italiano restaurant, one of his seven venues at the Palms.

Editor’s note: Readers are cautioned that this story contains strong sexual content.

Legal and public relations problems expanded Monday for Las Vegas nightclub and restaurant executive Michael Morton and his N9NE Group when they were hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit by a fired employee.

Leslie Culler, art director of the N9NE Group, charges in the lawsuit she was fired in July after eight years with the company because, in part, she refused sexual advances directed toward her by Morton and other male executives "and objected to all of the constant sexual harassment she had to endure at her work place."

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Las Vegas adds to the current drama at the N9NE Group, which runs popular restaurants and nightclubs at the Palms hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

Morton is entangled in litigation with Palms owner George Maloof Jr. over allegations Morton has mismanaged and stolen from their joint-venture restaurants and clubs.

One of the allegations of mismanagement was that Morton in recent years had hid from Maloof and N9NE Group investors a $460,000 settlement of a workplace discrimination lawsuit filed by black and Hispanic security guards; and that the joint-venture faced new discrimination allegations from Culler.

The joint venture, N-M Ventures; along with Morton’s Nine Group LLC (the N9NE Group), were named as defendants by Culler in Monday’s suit along with Morton, Morton’s longtime partner Scott DeGraff and N9NE Group executive Bronson Olimpieri.

Perhaps significantly, Monday’s lawsuit says: "Despite being documented as working for N-M Ventures LLC, plaintiff (Culler) was instructed to do projects for other Nine Group entities, as well as for Morton and his wife, Jenna."

Culler will likely be a witness in the Morton-Maloof litigation in which Maloof charges N-M Ventures employees like Culler did projects on the side that benefited Morton and his wife and Morton's new wine bar restaurant at Wynn Las Vegas -- all at the expense of Maloof.

Morton, who has denied the allegations of wrongdoing, claims Maloof and disgruntled N9NE Group investors are wrongly trying to remove him from their lucrative venture.

Mark Ferrario, one of Morton’s attorneys in the litigation with Maloof, said Monday he hadn’t seen the Culler discrimination lawsuit and therefore couldn’t comment on it.

Culler specifically charged in her lawsuit:

-- She was subjected to more than 200 instances of sexual harassment and discrimination by Morton, DeGraff, Olimpieri, N-M Ventures vice president of brand marketing and Culler’s immediate supervisor; and Michael Fuller, a former N-M Ventures executive. N-M Ventures officials have said Fuller was fired over an incident in which he tried to escort an underage woman into N9NE Group’s Moon Nightclub at the Palms.

-- DeGraff once told her, while on company property, that she should play tennis with him and that she should wear a skirt, but not panties or undergarments.

-- DeGraff, at N9NE Group’s Ghostbar, without permission touched her breasts and said he wanted to snort cocaine off of her breasts.

-- Morton, at a company holiday party, grabbed Culler, bent her over a sofa and in the presence of others spanked her so hard she was left with welts on her buttocks.

-- Morton, during a company director’s dinner, grabbed Culler and told her he wanted to "know what it would feel like to’’ have sex with her.

-- Morton, during a work-related birthday party at the Palms, grabbed Culler and tried to kiss her.

-- Morton and DeGraff, at work, set the air conditioner at a cold temperature in order to make Culler’s nipples hard.

-- At the Palms, a friend of Morton’s grabbed Culler’s wrists and "Morton brutishly grabbed the defenseless plaintiff’s breasts." Afterwards, Culler wept about what Morton allegedly had done and a friend of Culler’s reported the incident to N-M Ventures President Andrew Belmonti, but Belmonti did nothing to properly address the situation, the lawsuit alleges.

-- In another incident Morton grabbed Culler’s buttocks.

-- At N9NE Group’s N9NE Steakhouse at the Palms, Morton forced Culler, without her consent, to sit on his lap.

-- Olimpieri on a regular basis, alone and in front of other employees, offered Culler money to pull her pants down, bend over and expose her buttocks. "Plaintiff refused to participate in such degrading activities,’’ the suit says.

-- Fuller, another supervisor of Culler’s, told her that on a scale of 1-10 she was a 9, but would be a 10 if she didn’t wear a bra under her shirt. He once threw water on Culler’s white shirt so he could see her breasts through the shirt, the suit alleged.

"Plaintiff never encouraged, welcomed or consented to the sexual harassment or lewd and physical acts,’’ the lawsuit says.

Culler said in the lawsuit that while working at the N9NE Group, she was fearful of losing her job because previous employees who challenged Morton, DeGraff and other executives were fired without cause.

"Conversely, employees that engaged with sexual activities with Morton were rewarded with favorable treatment. Morton, during plaintiff’s employment, engaged in an intimate relationship with a hostess, who was a subordinate of Morton. Shortly thereafter, the employee was promoted to cocktail waitress," the suit charged.

Culler said in the lawsuit the real reason she was fired was because she was dressing more conservatively, she was trying to get pregnant and that plaintiff "was not fun" in defendants’ eyes.

Filed by Las Vegas attorney Andre Lagomarsino, the lawsuit alleges counts of hostile work environment/sexual harassment; unlawful discriminatory employment practices; retaliation for Culler’s refusal to participate in the sexually charged acts imposed upon her at work and because she was trying to get pregnant; intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and includes counts of assault and battery against Morton, charging, "Morton inappropriately touch plaintiff throughout her employment, and numerous times throughout her final two years with N-M Ventures LLC, in excess of 200 times.’’

The Greenspun family, owner of the Las Vegas Sun, is a minority investor in the Palms.