KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Twenty-one former employees -- from nurses to chefs to program counselors -- have joined forces to get back wages they say they're owed by a private women's retreat center that abruptly closed in March.

The workers are suing center founder Jacqueline Dawes and Brookhaven Retreat LLC in U.S. District Court in Knoxville.

Attorneys Jeffrey Taylor and Ashley B. Gordon filed the complaint. The Morristown firm declined comment because the litigation is pending.

Dawes, a United Kingdom native, opened the Seymour center in the mid 2000s. It drew an exclusive and international clientele, billing clients thousands of dollars a month for mental health and drug treatment that could go on for several months.

Dawes wasn't a trained clinician and had no medical licensures of her own. But she'd lost a teenage daughter in Scotland to a drug overdose, and she told clients and employees that inspired her to help other women.

Dawes appeared to live a lavish lifestyle, building a mansion off Gov. John Sevier Highway that was listed at one point last year for $8.4 million. It didn't sell.

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Mounting financial problems appeared to overtake Dawes and Brookhaven, records show.

She faced a pending federal lien of more than $4 million for unpaid taxes, records show, before deciding the morning of March 5 to tell workers they'd be closing at the end of that day.

The former employees, a mix of hourly and salaried workers, allege Dawes and Brookhaven broke labor laws by failing to pay them over two pay periods spanning four weeks. They're due straight wages as well as overtime, the lawsuit states.

Some have told 10News that Dawes told them the Friday before Brookhaven closed their pay was being delayed because of an pending business merger. The center's sudden closure left them in a financial bind, facing bills and obligations of their own, they said.

The plaintiffs include seven nurses, two chefs, two housekeepers, a groundskeeper, a group therapist, a dietitian and a communications coordinator. Other former employees lost their jobs but have not filed suit.

The complaint identifies the plaintiffs as Megan Winstead; Tessa Batchelor; April Chandler; Denise N. Clark; Leslie L. Cook; Shalea Donegan; Melissa Galant; Amy Jackson; Crisie Jennings; Steve A. Kinser; Mildred Anastasia Main; Lisa Nobles; Alicia Ogle; Brenda Orcutt; Anna Palmer; Kristen Rials; Kayla Sherwood; Lauren Steier; Ashley A. Sullivan; Ashley Thomas; and Jaelyn E. Yount.

Dawes left so quickly she gave away two horses that had been used for equine therapy at Brookhaven. She appears to have left East Tennessee. She has ties to the New York state area.

Pinnacle Bank has since taken over the Brookhaven site.