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NY Cafe Owner Sued for Sexually Assaulting, Exploiting Foreign Exchange Students on J-1 Visa

Eight former employees — all international students— sued Marie Eiffel, owner of a popular cafe on Shelter Island for sexual abuse and exploitation. 

Eight former employees — all students from Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia and Ecuador — sued Marie Eiffel, owner of popular cafe Marie Eiffel Market on Shelter Island for sexual abuse and exploitation. 

Between summer 2021 and 2022, the six women and two men worked at Marie Eiffel Market under a J-1 visa, a nonimmigrant category for exchange visitors. A lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court states Eiffel not only assaulted them, but stole their wages too. 

“Instead of providing the advertised once-in-a-lifetime experience, Defendants subjected Plaintiffs to the horror of Marie Eiffel…who routinely spanked Plaintiffs on the buttocks, groped female employees’ breasts, choked employees, and made sexually harassing, demeaning, and discriminatory comments about their race and looks,” the lawsuit states. 

The defendants in the lawsuit are Interexchange, Inc. — a nonprofit and J-1 sponsor agency which provided the students to employers including Eiffel for employment in the U.S. — as well as Eiffel and her LLCs which include Marie Eiffel LLC, Reddings Market LLC, and Eiffel Reddings LLC on Shelter Island. 

The students say the LLCs also engaged in wage theft by illegally failing to pay portions of their wages and withholding their tips in violation of New York labor law. 

Each student stated they borrowed money, in some instances thousands of dollars, from their parents in order to participate in the J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa Program for what they thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live and work in the U.S. They ended up experiencing a “nightmare,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed as Loh Xiao Han et al. v. InterExchange, Inc., 1:23-cv-07786, in the U.S District Court, Southern District of New York, lower Manhattan.

Eiffel has denied the allegations “I never abused anybody sexually,” she told Bloomberg. “I never do that.” She told Shelter Island Reporter that she wasn’t served the suit and hence wasn’t aware of the report but has since hired an attorney to take legal action.

On at least one occasion, “Eiffel ordered an employee to record her spanking an employee on the buttocks,” the lawsuit states, “with a bunch of parsley while she laughed at the camera.” The case file includes a photo of the incident. 

Congress introduced the J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa Program under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, and it has since assisted the Department of State in its diplomacy and in furthering the foreign policy objectives of the U.S. The visa program attracts about 300,000 people into the U.S. per year.

Also Read: O-1 Visa Requirements, Cost and How to Apply

In the lawsuit, the students stated they reported Eiffel’s behavior to Interexchange but the sponsor agency did nothing. The plaintiffs are represented by Michael J. Del Piano, Dennis C. Valet and Teresa L. Staiano of Lewis Johs Avallone Aviles LLP and Kimberly Kalmanson and Randi M. Cohen of Kalmanson Cohen PLLC.

A 2020 GoFundMe campaign aimed at raising $300,000 to save the café during the pandemic describes Marie Eiffel’s story as one of resilience, and it garnered $179,000 in donations, with contributions from notable individuals such as hotelier Andre Balazs and French film star Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Read the full details of the lawsuit in the case file here.

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