A third woman has come forward with workplace sexual harassment allegations against a senior massage therapist at one of Napa Valley’s premier luxury resorts, Auberge Solage Resort & Spa in Calistoga.
A lawsuit filed late last year in Napa County Superior Court blames the global corporation for turning a blind eye to reported allegations of sexual misconduct and retaliation by senior massage therapist Eliot Ferrer.
The three plaintiffs accuse Ferrer of grooming, stalking, and harassing them. They’ve filed a civil lawsuit to hold Solage management accountable for fostering a toxic work environment that threatens the safety of their workers.
“Auberge failed in its responsibility to separate the employees and failed to protect these women from a senior staff member who preyed on younger, vulnerable colleagues,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney John Winer with the Oakland-based law firm Winer Burritt & Scott.
“We know there are several more victims who suffered harassment and retaliation by Ferrer, but they are too afraid to come forward for fear of losing their jobs,” Winer says.
Brenna Gruby, the third woman to join the suit, worked in the reservations department for the high-end spa from the summer of 2018 until winter 2019, when she left her job because Ferrer’s behavior had made her work environment unbearable.
“I felt completely alone,” says Ms. Gruby, who only learned that other women had endured similar treatment when she read an article about two massage therapists at Auberge Solage filing a lawsuit in December 2021.
“He had that creepy type of energy about him, but it never occurred to me that he acted inappropriately with other people. I thought it was just me.”
The reservations department, where she worked, shared close quarters with the massage area, including a break room, in which employees clocked in and out.
She Gruby says Ferrer had her schedule “down pat.” He knew when she would arrive or leave and intercept her in the break room. He would block the door so she couldn’t exit without physically pushing past him. “He made sure other people weren’t around,” she says, then detained her in lengthy conversations, pressing her on personal questions about her romantic relationship and talking about sexual matters.
“I wanted to avoid him as much as I could, but there’s only so much I could do. The turning point was when he put his hands on me, on my back near my butt. That violated my space and made me feel just disgusted and uncomfortable.”
Early on, she says, “I had mentioned it to my supervisor, and nothing came out of it; she never discussed it with me further. At the time, I was kind of scared to say something. It was my first job that I really felt passionate about.” She says that she was aware of dating relationships between senior staff and hourly employees, so she feared that the “HR department didn’t care about these matters. I felt violated, and I didn’t feel safe anymore. I felt like there was nothing anybody could do to protect me at my job.”
Unable to endure Ferrer’s advances and doubtful that management would support her, she left the position to find another opportunity. “I could have moved up and grown within their company, but I didn’t feel comfortable being there anymore. I felt intimidated. It just didn’t seem like it was worth it to me.”
But leaving a solid job in an industry she enjoyed, with good pay, benefits, sales incentives, and growth opportunity, has had broader implications. “I went into a depression,” she says. “I couldn’t afford health insurance, and so my mental health declined.” When she read about the two other women’s experiences, she decided she needed to speak out.
Ms. Gruby says Solage should take responsibility for its failure to protect employees from a “serial predator.” Solage’s clientele should be aware that behind the scenes of the pricey services they’ve been receiving at a posh spa, the health and wellbeing of the providers are at risk. She also hopes to protect other women, both employees, and guests, “Elliot needs to be stripped of his massage therapist’s license, and I don’t think he should be allowed to work at a resort again.” Her distressing experiences mirror that of two massage therapists and close friends who went to work for Solage separately but ended up having similar ordeals with Ferrer.
Leila Muller has been a massage therapist for nearly a decade. She began practicing on the side while studying for a degree in physical therapy because it offered an income and flexible hours, allowing her to care for her son while going to school. “I kind of just fell in love with it,” she says. She was thrilled to begin working at Solage while pregnant with her daughter. “It’s kind of like the top of the line for massage therapists. They pay well, and it’s a beautiful resort. It’s so peaceful,” she says. “At the time, I thought it was a terrific company to work for.”
About Ferrer, she says that for a time, “I thought of Elliot kind of like a ‘work dad,’ because he’s significantly older than me. And he was just really nice to me.” She soon noticed, though, that when “he wants to have a conversation with you, he’s the kind of person that you can’t escape—but you don’t want to be rude because he’s being so nice. And we’re at work. We’re being professional. So, I ended up talking to him a lot.”
According to Ms. Muller, it was after Ferrer found out she was pregnant that things “just got out of control.” At first, it seemed that he was trying to be helpful, carrying items for her and bringing her treats. Then he started giving her bracelets he’d made to sell. He asked her to wear them as a way to promote his work, but it became awkward when he repeatedly inquired whether her boyfriend was mad about her wearing Ferrer’s jewelry. He started sending her overly familiar emails and a bathing suit picture.
He began trying to embrace her at work, which she describes as an “uncomfortable hug…he would put his hand on my low back.” Things got more worrisome when Ferrer emailed her pictures from her hometown, where he had traveled on his day off. He had photographed personal landmarks such as her high school and aunt’s store. “It creeped me out,” she says.
Co-workers joked that Ms. Muller was Ferrer’s “favorite.” He was her superior, a trainer in the department, and she was afraid to create an awkward work environment by being openly rude to him. At one point, Ferrer asked her and the other massage therapist, “Amy” to participate in special training that could help them move up in the company. But the women declined when he insisted it takes place at his home.
When Ms. Muller rebuffed him, Ferrer would turn hostile. She took to hiding in her massage room. Ferrer made work-life miserable for her in new ways, taking her shifts and clients and being openly impolite to her in front of colleagues. When she finally reported his behavior to Human Resources, providing evidence such as screenshots of his inappropriate emails, they apologized and agreed to change her schedule so she wouldn’t overlap with Ferrer. The change never came.
When Covid lockdown began in the spring of 2020, Ms. Muller was relieved for the clean break. She never went back.
The second plaintiff, who asked to be identified as “Amy,” initially joined the Solage team at Ms. Muller’s suggestion, working as an on-call massage therapist at the sister spa, Auberge. When she began at Solage, Amy was immediately alarmed by Ferrer’s behavior.
“The first day, I realized he was flirty, that he wouldn’t leave me alone. He was following me around. He was overly friendly. It made me so uncomfortable.”
A seasoned therapist with extensive experience at top spas, Amy says she had never encountered behavior like Ferrer’s among professionals in the resort environment. But being new to the job and initially reassured by Muller, she tried to forge a collegial relationship with him. Even so, she says, “There was something there that I was like, red flag, red flag—but I ignored it.”
Over months, Ferrer’s inappropriate conduct and Amy’s discomfort escalated. “If I was by myself, he was always exactly right behind me—in the linen closet, by the computer,” she says. “He started hugging me and holding me, telling me that he wanted me to work at the spa full time.”
Like Ms. Muller, Amy was particularly bothered when Ferrer tried to pressure them to do body training in his home after hours. “It was ridiculous,” she says. But Amy didn’t yet know how problematic Ferrer’s behavior had become for Ms. Muller. When she finally learned the extent of what her pregnant friend had been going through, they discussed at length the benefits and risks of reporting Ferrer to upper management.
Amy feared there would be retaliation. “It is known to the entire staff that Eliot has a very close and personal relationship, not just with the director, with the managers, but also with the investors, human resources, the entire upper class of the management, and ownership of the hotel.”
But soon, Amy decided she must speak out to support Ms. Muller. “I came forward, but I did it anonymously because, at this point, I knew he was stalking her. And I was scared,” she says. “I don’t know what he’s capable of.”
After Ferrer met with Human Resources, Amy recalls, “He waited three hours for me in the parking lot at night.” She calls that moment “terrifying.” Fortunately, someone came outside and began talking with Ferrer. “I jogged to my car while I was calling my husband and got in the car and took off.”
Even after that, Ferrer kept trying to talk to her, Amy says, and openly antagonized her and Muller at work.
“I was extremely disappointed with the company. They didn’t listen or take our concerns seriously. My anxiety was so high that I had panic attacks all the time. I started to lose sleep. I got very depressed during that time. It just showed the character of the company, what they stand for, and what they’re willing to put anybody through.”
Winer hopes that a successful outcome in the lawsuit will result in effective changes at the resort. Until then, Auberge Solage remains an unsafe environment, especially for young women.
“As far as we can tell, Auberge Solage has done nothing to solve its sexual harassment problem,” he says. “Instead, they have developed a bunker mentality where they are choosing to litigate rather than fix their broken Spa and HR Department, leaving employees and ultimately patrons at risk.”