A Florida Keys woman this week filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in federal court against an Islamorada Village councilman who is also the owner of a popular restaurant and a candidate for the Monroe Board of County Commissioners.
Attorneys for the woman, Melissa Kozak, state in the lawsuit that Councilman Mike Forster repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances toward her — including inappropriately touching her in front of co-workers and customers — over the course of 10 months from October 2015 to July 2016 when she worked as a server at Forster’s Mangrove Mike’s Cafe at mile marker 82 in Islamorada.
Forster “categorically” denies all allegations made in the lawsuit.
Roderick Hannah, Kozak’s lawyer, writes in the complaint that the Forster made the advances and inappropriate comments in person while she was at work and in writing on social media, including in messages on Facebook.
“There’s proof of what was going on,” Hannah said in an interview Thursday.
The complaint states that when Kozak, 36, rejected Forster’s advances, he retaliated by reducing her hours and giving her fewer lucrative weekend shifts — when tips are better — and eventually by not scheduling her at all, forcing her to quit.
Forster, 59, said he never sexually harassed Kozak or punitively reduced her shifts. He said the lawsuit stems from Kozak being angry at not having enough hours while she worked at Mangrove Mike’s to qualify for state unemployment benefits when she quit her job to work as an entertainer for children’s parties.
Forster said he began to reduce her shifts in 2016 because he didn’t think Kozak wanted them because she continually asked colleagues to work for her so she could work other jobs and spend time with her family.
Kozak quit in July of that year and subsequently filed a complaint with the state Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program, arguing that Mangrove Mike’s management reduced her shifts to two days a week as punishment for her asking off one day because she didn’t have a sitter for her child. She did not mention sexual harassment in that complaint.
She filed a discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in October of that year that did claim Forster sexually harassed her.
“As you can see, It was all about unemployment and money,” Forster said in an email. He sent the Miami Herald emails from his attorneys from 2016 that detailed concerns Kozak stated during an unemployment hearing where she never mentioned sexual harassment, as well as the written complaint she made to the Department of Economic Opportunity.
Kozak’s attorneys at the time sought settlement offers from Forster, but he declined, both Forster and Hannah said.
“And, it could have been easy for me to agree to the money. But it has everything to do with the principle of being falsely accused. I refuse to settle now and moving forward,” Forster said.
Hannah counters that the lawsuit has “nothing to do with unemployment.” He said Forster reduced Kozak’s hours to punish her for rejecting his advances.
“This has been lingering out there for a long time,” Hannah said.
Kozak filed the EEOC complaint on Oct. 18, 2016. Hannah said he’s reached out to Forster’s attorneys several times since then seeking a financial settlement, with no offer being made. The EEOC didn’t assign an investigator into the case for almost a year and a half, and the agency did not reached a determination about the case. However, this February, the agency issued a “right to sue” letter to Kozak, upon her request, green-lighting the federal civil case against Forster.
Once the EEOC issues right to sue letters, plaintiffs have 90 days to file their lawsuits. In between the time the letter was issued and the suit was filed, Hannah said he didn’t hear from Forster or his attorneys.
“She made every effort to try to resolve this more quietly, amicably and confidentially,” Hannah said. “They didn’t offer anything. Not even a penny.”
Forster is a well-known figure throughout the Keys, but especially in the Upper Keys and Islamorada, where Mangrove Mike’s is not only a popular eatery, but a place where the who’s who of the island chain hang out. He’s served on the Islamorada Village Council for 11 years, and he’s running to replace Commissioner Sylvia Murphy for her District 5 seat on the Board of County Commissioners in 2020.