Emma Dilemma, a makeup artist and bikini barista for the last year and a half, serves a drink to a customer while dressed as Lily Munster Oct. 25, 2022, at XO Espresso on 41st Street in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Emma Dilemma, a makeup artist and bikini barista for the last year and a half, serves a drink to a customer while dressed as Lily Munster Oct. 25, 2022, at XO Espresso on 41st Street in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Everett to pay $500K to end legal battle with bikini baristas

A settlement agreement aligns dress code rules with the city’s existing lewd conduct standard, ending a six-year tussle.

EVERETT — A drawn-out legal tussle on the city’s dress code for bikini baristas is ending after the Everett City Council on Wednesday agreed to pay $500,000 to the stand owner and employees who filed suit six years ago.

The council voted unanimously to authorize Mayor Cassie Franklin to sign the settlement agreement with Jovanna Edge and several employees. Plaintiffs had been seeking roughly $3.3 million in damages and attorney fees.

Under the agreement, the city will retain most of its existing rules for probationary licensing of coffee stands and other quick service business. And the city will no longer dictate baristas wear at least tanktops and shorts. Rather, the city agreed to align the dress code rules with the existing lewd conduct standard that makes it a crime to publicly expose too much of one’s private parts.

The city can revoke a stand owner’s business license upon two or more infractions for violations of the standard.

Another provision mandates business owners post materials for employees with information on how to seek help if they are being trafficked or otherwise exploited.

“I am glad we’re for the baristas and against the people who are trying to get them to do things they don’t want to do,” City Council member Liz Vogeli said after the vote.

In a statement released Thursday, the mayor said: “This has always been about protecting the best interest of our community and preventing exploitation.”

“The amendments to the ordinance we are agreeing to enact will provide us with a new tool for addressing issues at individual stands while also providing support to employees that are being coerced or exploited in any way,” she said.

The settlement agreement may be the final chapter of a saga dating back to 2009, when the city received “dozens and dozens of complaints” about baristas whose outfits at times consisted of little more than body paint, stickers and G-strings.

Allegations of sex shows, sex acts and customers allowed to physically touch women led to investigations of owners permitting such illegal conduct. After arrests and prosecution of four people, the problems “appeared to have gone away,” Deputy City Attorney Ramsey Ramerman told council members.

It didn’t. In 2013, an investigation led to the arrest of two espresso stand owners on accusations of promoting prostitution and exploitation of a minor, as well as a veteran Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant for tipping off bikini baristas about undercover officers in exchange for sexual favors.

At that point the city looked for new ways to hold stand owners accountable and prevent the exploitation of employees.

The centerpiece of what emerged in 2017 was a dress code ordinance, requiring all employees, owners and operators of “quick service facilities” to wear clothing that covers the upper and lower body. The ordinance listed coffee stands, fast food restaurants, delis, food trucks and coffee shops as examples of quick service businesses. Violations could result in a $250 fine on the first offense.

Almost immediately Jovanna Edge, owner of Everett bikini barista stand Hillbilly Hotties, and employees Natalie Bjerke, Matteson Hernandez, Leah Humphrey, Amelia Powell and Liberty Ziska filed a legal complaint challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance.

They argued it violated their First Amendment rights, asserting in written declarations their right to a lack of clothing was akin to their right to free speech, through its role as a message of body positivity, women’s empowerment and freedom.

“Some countries make you wear lots of clothing because of their religious beliefs,” Hernandez wrote. “But America is different because you can wear what you want to wear. I wear what I’m comfortable with and others can wear what they are comfortable with. Wearing a bikini sends this message to others.”

A federal judge in 2017 issued a preliminary injunction, banning Everett from enforcing the dress code.

In 2019, the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sided with the city to implement the dress code.

And in 2020, the coffee stand workers filed to have their case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court justices did not hear the case. It made its way back down to a lower court to address legal questions from the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

In October, a U.S. District Court judge found the dress code ordinance unconstitutional.

Ramerman told City Council members the city could appeal. Costs were uncertain and a defeat would lead to a much higher tab than the $500,000, he said. The city had spent $390,661 defending the ordinance as of February.

The settlement “still gives us our best tool to require stand owners to make sure their employees are not engaging in illegal conduct,” the city attorney said. “It still leaves the city with a strong tool to make sure we don’t have a repeat of what we uncovered in 2013.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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