Denny's incident stirs calls Rights lawyers consider class action on bias

June 10, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

Civil rights lawyers in Washington are investigating scores o discrimination complaints against Denny's with an eye toward a class action lawsuit, in the wake of allegations by six black Secret Service agents who said they were not served at the chain's Annapolis restaurant.

"It's conceivable that at some point we could seek a class action," said John P. Relman, of The Washington Lawyers

Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "We will represent everyone who wants to be represented and who has a good case."

The additional complaints have come since six black Secret Service agents filed a discrimination suit against Denny's in U.S. District Court in Baltimore last month. The agents alleged that on April 1 they watched their white counterparts finish second breakfast helpings at the Denny's in Annapolis while they waited for an hour after ordering without being served.

Ironically this occurred on the same day the company settled a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department's civil rights division by signing a consent decree in California to halt discriminatory practices.

Mr. Relman is representing the Secret Service agents.

The lawyers group has five lawyers and investigators working full-time on complaints that blacks were discriminated against in service and in employment at Denny's restaurants around the country, though most callers are from the Washington area.

The lawyers would not discuss the substance of the complaints.

How many allegations would qualify for a class action civil suit would be up to a judge, Mr. Relman said.

A spokesman for TW Services Inc., the Spartanburg, S.C., corporation that owns the nearly 1,500 Denny's restaurants, said the company takes complaints of racial bias seriously and was prepared to investigate them.

A black Crofton woman said she has contacted the civil rights lawyers over the way she was treated when she answered an ad for a job as a waitress at the Annapolis Denny's in November 1991.

Deidre Jones said in a recent interview that a manager she spoke to on the telephone encouraged her to fill out an application when she said she was calling from mostly white Crofton. But when she showed up the next day, "He said 'We're just too busy.' He wouldn't even give me an application," she recalled.

Later, she said she was told the restaurant was not hiring, despite the newspaper ad, the sign in the window and the invitation to come in. After she complained to another manager about racial bias, Denny's offered her a job as a hostess, which pays less. But she got a higher paying job at another restaurant.

Other black Annapolis residents have complained, but say they are reluctant to talk to the Washington lawyers.

Elaine Price took her complaint to the state Commission on Human Relations in May 1991. She alleged that the service she and her husband received was poor, that their bill was incorrect and that a cashier called them "niggers."

Mrs. Price said the state agency later informed her that the restaurant was sorry, had fired an employee over the incident and would give the Price family a free meal there.

"But we've never been back to Denny's since," Mrs. Price said.

Jennifer Burdick, executive director of the human relations commission, would neither confirm nor deny that the complaint was made.

Denny's officials, however, sent a copy of a human relations commission opinion dated Nov. 7, 1991, that said the commission could not substantiate Mrs. Price's allegations and found "no probable cause to believe that discrimination has occurred."

The commission sent testers to the restaurant, but they did not experience discrimination, the opinion says.

Mrs. Price said she stands by her complaint.

In a letter to the commission, Denny's officials did not indicate they fired anyone, though they did offer the Prices a free meal in "an environment free from racial discrimination of any kind or nature."

George Larkins, also of Annapolis, recalled regularly seeing "white people get served and leave -- and we'd still be begging for a cup of coffee." He said he liked the food and he and his wife "learned to get used to" the service.

But his daughter, Bertina Nick, said she could not get used to it and has rarely patronized the restaurant in recent years.

Some Annapolis area blacks say they do not feel they were discriminated against at Denny's. But they don't dispute what others allege.

The Rev. Leroy Bowman, pastor of First Baptist Church for 50 years and a man who a generation ago picketed restaurants that refused to serve blacks, said he has never had a problem at Denny's. But he also worried about what he has heard.

"When I hear that kind of thing today, I say that's where I came in. If we haven't made any more progress than that in 50 years -- I am so disappointed and disgusted," he said. "I guess sometimes you have to refight battles."

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