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African-American diners file race-discrimination suit against Bahama Breeze

Monday, September 10, 2018

Suit alleges hostile treatment by white managers who filed false police report that led to group being detained in June 19 incident

CLEVELAND, OH — Today, 25 African-American women and men filed a civil lawsuit against Bahama Breeze Holdings, Inc. and two white managers, Frances Skupnik and Devin Jenkins, alleging race discrimination in public accommodations, and making false police reports under state law.

The complaint alleges that on June 19, 2018, author Danielle Nelson hosted a private party at the Bahama Breeze in Orange Village, Ohio to celebrate her upcoming move and recent book deal. She arranged with a manager to have the enclosed patio area set up for her gathering.

The complaint alleges that Ms. Nelson and most of her guests are post-graduate members of the Greater Cleveland Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. The organization was founded at Howard University in 1913. The Cleveland chapter had sustained the founders’ commitment to scholarship and public service rooted in Christian principles. The Cleveland chapter counts among its over 400 members Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge, who previously served as president of the national chapter.

The complaint alleges that from the moment they arrived for their 6:00 p.m. reservation, the staff—and particularly Skupnik and Jenkins—treated the party with marked hostility. The complaint alleges that:

  • Ms. Nelson and her party were not seated for nearly an hour despite having a reservation, even though a server admitted that she had set up the private-patio area for them earlier that afternoon;
  • The staff adopted a hostile and combative approach and failed to do basic things like timely taking or delivering orders or apologizing for extreme delays;
  • The managers failed to allocate sufficient staff to serve the party of 20-plus guests and complained that there were “too many people” in the party;
  • Manager Devin Jenkins tried to restrict plaintiffs’ free movement within the restaurant, telling Ms. Nelson, “You and your people cannot leave out of this room for anything.”
  • Ms. Jenkins repeatedly walked away from members of Ms. Nelson’s party while the guests were trying to speak to her or request assistance;
  • Guests who placed to-go orders by phone received their food promptly while guests who relied on the servers experienced significantly longer wait times (if they were served at all);
  • A plaintiff who tried to place an order at the bar waited about 20 minutes without being served, but when a white female sat down beside her, the white female was served immediately;

The complaint alleges that when one guest, Shunnah Antoine, requested her check because she needed to leave for work, the server refused to provide it, claiming she had to wait until all of the checks were ready to come out. The complaint alleges that Ms. Antoine then asked to speak to a manager and Ms. Jenkins likewise refused to provide a bill, insisting that the whole party had to be served before bills could be generated. The complaint alleges that Ms. Antoine explained her need to leave for work at a 24-hour daycare and offered to leave her debit-card number to take care of her bill. The complaint alleges that Ms. Jenkins finally relented and Ms. Antoine received her bill, paid it, and left for work.

The complaint alleges that another manager, Mr. Skupnik, then called Orange Village police and falsely reported that the group were “unruly guests” who were “threatening” to “walk out without paying.” The police report detailing Mr. Skupnik’s call to police and Ms. Jenkins’s on-site statements to police is available here. Mr. Skupnik's 911 call is here.

The complaint alleges that the white managers’ false reports to police were motivated not by anything plaintiffs had done but by these employees’ invidious stereotypes about black criminality.

The complaint alleges that after police arrived, members of Ms. Nelson’s party were accosted and forced to prove they had paid before being permitted to leave the private-party area (even though many guests had not received their orders—let alone their checks—by this time). The complaint alleges that Ms. Jenkins stood chuckling as plaintiffs endured the humiliation of being subjected to police scrutiny and treated as criminals segregated in the patio area, precluded from going to the bar, firepit, or restroom.

The complaint alleges that the officers left the restaurant 30–45 minutes later but remained conspicuously parked by the entrance as plaintiffs departed, and that the hostility continued as servers pestered the remaining guests about whether they would pay.

The complaint also alleges that the executive board of the Delta Sigma Theta Cleveland alumnae chapter—comprised of African-Americans—was holding a board meeting at the same time as Ms. Nelson’s party and had a reservation for eight in the dining area. The complaint alleges that, like Ms. Nelson’s party, the executive board also was not seated until nearly an hour after their reservation, received poor service, and were dismissed by the manager who did not apologize or offer to remedy the issues that arose.

The complaint alleges that at least two different servers recognized how hostile the service was, with one apologizing for having followed Ms. Jenkins’s instructions in terms of how to mistreat the party, and another remarking that she couldn’t believe the manager had called the police on Ms. Nelson and her friends. In response to online criticism, Bahama Breeze tweeted on June 22, 2018 that “the manager involved” had “mistreated a guest” and “no longer works for” the restaurant. It did not specify which of the two managers involved was no longer employed.

Several years ago, this Bahama Breeze restaurant reportedly paid $1.26 million to settle a class-action lawsuit for racial harassment of black workers at the same Orange Village/Beachwood location. According to the lawsuit, filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Bahama Breeze managers committed numerous and persistent actions of racial harassment against black employees, including frequently addressing black staff with racial slurs such as “n****r,” “Aunt Jemima,” and “you people.” An EEOC official described the conduct as “egregious race-based mistreatment.”

Plaintiffs’ lead counsel, Subodh Chandra, said, “’Dining while black’ is not a crime, but Bahama Breeze treated these educated, professional African-Americans like common criminals—calling the police and humiliating Danielle Nelson and her guests for no good reason. Such discrimination has no place in our society. Our clients intend to hold those responsible accountable for this mistreatment and hope to propel the national conversation about the role of race in American life.”

Bahama Breeze’s parent company, Darden Restaurants, Inc., owns and operates a number of restaurant chains including Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Yard House, and The Capital Grille. According to its most recent SEC filing, it served nearly 390 million meals during its last fiscal year.

The suit, captioned Nelson, et al. v. Bahama Breeze Holdings, et al., was filed in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas and is assigned to Judge Brendan Sheehan. The complaint, which can be found here, alleges claims of race discrimination in public accommodations under Ohio Rev. Code § 4112.02(G) and (J) and civil liability for the crime of making false alarms under Ohio Rev. Code § 2917.32.

The press conference announcing the lawsuit is below.

Related Practice Areas
Race Discrimination

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