Calif. Lawyer Sues Over Attending All-Male Mountain Retreat

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A California lawyer has sued his former employer for allegedly docking his pay after he refused to sign up for a weekend-long "New Warrior" personal-development seminar that included men disrobing and passing around a wooden phallus.

The Orange County Superior Court case seems like a routine labor dispute between a lawyer and his former firm, except for the salacious accusations involving a little-known, somewhat secretive nonprofit known as The ManKind Project, which seeks to "redefine mature masculinity for the 21st century," according to its website.

Plaintiff Steven Eggleston, a chiropractor-turned-negligence lawyer, accuses the Newport Beach, Calif., firm Bisnar/Chase and partners John Bisnar and Brian Chase of sexual harassment and failure to pay wages. Eggleston claims he was paid $15,000 a month until he refused to attend a secluded all-male weekend retreat last February in the mountains overlooking Santa Barbara.

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The lawsuit said Eggleston, after reading reports about the seminars, was "understandably concerned" over the possibility of sitting naked in a room with his supervising attorney, who "might decide to touch his penis, or that he might be required to disclose details about his sex life."

Eggleston says in the complaint that after skipping the weekend retreat, which the the ManKind Project website describes as "a modern male initiation and self-examination," his compensation dwindled to nothing and his supervising boss, Bisnar, became so hostile that he had to quit.

According to the complaint, Bisnar told Eggleston that he couldn't require him to attend but repeatedly pressured him to attend. Chase, however, said Bisnar had only suggested it.

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Chase said there was no retaliation and called the complaint "a shakedown lawsuit by a disgruntled employee who failed miserably at his job." Eggleston was hired on a six-month contract, he said, and let go because of poor performance.

Bisnar, who has attended and spoken at ManKind Project training sessions, routinely encourages the firm's 30 staff members to participate in personal and professional development seminars, according to Chase. Although Bisnar has encouraged him to attend, Chase said he has never participated in New Warrior training.

The personal-injury firm has a distinct New Age feel, Chase said.

"We have yoga on Fridays," Chase said. "Bisnar will encourage people to go to professional seminars for trial lawyers or paralegals. He also encourages people to do personal development. He's passed out Deepak Chopra books. We've had tickets to Anthony Robbins' seminars. He encourages people to better themselves."

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Eggleston's lawyer, Kate Hartman, denied that her client had signed a contract and said he brought more than 100 cases to the firm over eight months. He was "freaked out" by what he learned about the ManKind Project over the Internet, she said, and twice refused to attend the seminar, leading to problems with his boss.

"I've talked to many former employees at Bisnar and Chase, and they don't know about any other seminars being offered other than this particular one," Hartman said. "Based on the information that I have, the only seminar they've asked employees to go to -- and they're very hot and heavy on it -- is this New Warrior training. I don't think professional development needs to involve taking off your clothes and discussing your sex life."

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Eggleston's lawsuit has brought unwanted attention to the ManKind Project, which some men credit with helping them confront childhood traumas. The complaint said Eggleston learned about what ManKind refers to on its website as a carved wooden phallus by doing a Google search, which also yielded reports of the 2005 suicide of a 29-year-old man who shot himself two weeks after attending a warrior weekend near Houston.

Carl Griesser, executive director of the ManKind Project, said the nudity is optional and comes near the end of the weekend seminar. The exercise is optional as well. There is nothing sexual about the nudity, he said, and sex and masturbation are forbidden.

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"The primary reason for using [the wooden phallus] is to help men deal with sexual shame," Griesser said. "In our culture where sex is so charged, the fact that we do this is something that a lot of people are really uncomfortable about. There is so much homophobia in the culture that even the concept of men being nude together in some context other than locker room is seen as really weird, if not crazy."

The 25-year-old project includes 35 nonprofit and charitable organizations in seven countries, Griesser said. It operates 30 centers in the U.S. -- with the 48-hour, $650 New Warrior Training Adventure.

"Our focus is basically on teaching accountability and integrity to men," Griesser said. "In our culture, there aren't too many options for men. They tend to be either extremely macho or kind of bumbling idiots and neither of that is very accurate for most men."

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Asked whether there is touching, Griesser said: "A person can but it is absolutely not a part of the program... It's completely nonsexual, and our intention is to give men an opportunity to talk about what their experience of the body, their physicality and their sexuality has been."

Eggleston's complaint refers to the wrongful death lawsuit filed against ManKind's Houston operation by the family of Michael Scinto, a recovering alcoholic who committed suicide in July 2005, about two weeks after attending a seminar.

A Houston Press story about the death quoted a letter Scinto wrote to the sheriff's office before taking his life, in which he wrote of being required to sign a confidentiality agreement, of being blindfolded and taken on tours in the nude, of naked men dancing around candles, and men revealing their sexual histories while passing a wooden phallus. After his death, Scinto's family discovered a list of ManKind members that included prominent local politicians and academics.

Griesser said the lawsuit brought by Scinto parents was settled "with no admission of wrongdoing" by the organization. The family received $75,000, according to Griesser and Scinto's mother Kathy.

"I personally have a lot of sadness that Michael Scinto died the way he did," Griesser said. "It's a tragedy. I don't see his participation [in the seminar] as being contributory in any way."

The men who attend ManKind Project retreats include lawyers, physicians, businessmen and people who have completed alcohol and drug abuse programs, Griesser said. There are two similar groups for women that are not affiliated to the ManKind Project.

Griesser admitted that negative publicity had tarnished the image of the ManKind Project, which was created in 1985 as a male answer to the women's movement. Through responses on the group's website, Griesser is trying to combat the perception of some that the group is a cult.

"It makes us sound and look like a bunch of idiots," he said.