Discrimination continues at Denny's, lawyers say Company defends education efforts

June 17, 1993|By Jeff Leeds | Jeff Leeds,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for a group of black Secret Service officers who are suing Denny's for alleged racial discrimination at the chain's Annapolis restaurant accused the company yesterday of more discrimination there and at seven other East Coast locations.

The lawyers produced sworn statements alleging 10 incidents of racial discrimination at Denny's restaurants in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, and they asked a federal judge in California to hold the company in contempt of an April 1 court order barring Denny's from discriminatory practices.

Three of the incidents are alleged to have occurred at the Denny's on West Street, where the Secret Service officers claim they were denied service. Another is alleged to have taken place at a Denny's in Greenbelt and a fifth at a Denny's in Gaithersburg.

Denny's parent company, Flagstar Cos. Inc. of Spartanburg, S.C., formerly TW Services, said it had not had a chance to review the allegations and promised to investigate them thoroughly.

Testimony submitted to the U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., where a class-action suit against Denny's is pending, included a statement from a black Temple Hills man who said he watched a waitress at the Annapolis Denny's serve food to a group of white people within 15 minutes of their arrival on April 18. But Clarence M. Haizlip Jr., a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Capitol Police, claimed that he waited 35 minutes at the counter without having his order taken.

"Every single waitress in the restaurant must have known that I was waiting to give my breakfast order, because they all walked right past me every few minutes when they went to drop off orders . . . and pick up the cooked food," he said. "But still I was not able to give my breakfast order."

On May 20, a black couple from New York stopped for breakfast at the restaurant. The couple, Leon J. Harris and Karen Smith-Thomas Harris, said they waited for more than an hour for their food, which was cold when it was finally served. Meanwhile, six groups of white customers who had come in after the couple placed orders and were served promptly, the couple said.

"I was infuriated," Mr. Harris said. "I could not believe that I had asked three times for water and coffee and received nothing, while the white customers were being served immediately. Thinking about this now still makes me angry."

A white woman, Stefani A. Hutchison of Chesapeake Beach, went out to breakfast with her family on May 9 and testified that her party was seated 15 minutes after arriving, ahead of a black couple waiting outside that had arrived before them.

Similar incidents were described by black patrons of restaurants in Gaithersburg and Greenbelt, where they said they waited between 30 minutes and an hour for food while white customers were served immediately.

Their stories also mirror accounts by the Secret Service officers and by members of a North Carolina children's choir who claim they were refused service at two Northern Virginia Denny's earlier this month.

"The inference is growing stronger that the Denny's management may be engaged in a policy of discrimination," said John P. Relman, a lawyer with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, the group representing the Secret Service officers.

"Today we have filed in California papers setting out evidence of pervasive discrimination" in the restaurant chain, he said.

In March, Denny's denied charges by the Justice Department that the restaurant chain made black customers pay for meals in advance in California, but signed a court order to settle the case quickly. The agreement called for the company to hire a civil rights monitor and train employees about racial discrimination.

Mr. Relman said he has obtained evidence showing the company did not move to educate its employees about discrimination until a month after the agreement was signed.

The Justice Department agreed to review all evidence that "supports allegations of racial bias" to determine whether the company is violating the agreement, a spokeswoman said.

But in its statement yesterday, the company insisted it is working to implement anti-discrimination programs "above and beyond those called for" by the agreement. The company plans to feature Denny's employees and customers in a television commercial next week to respond to the charges of discrimination, a spokesman said.

In the court papers filed yesterday, a former Denny's employee in Champaign, Ill., testified that when she worked as a waitress in 1990 and 1991, a regional manager directed her to require black and Hispanic customers to pre-pay for their food. Denise Perryman said Denny's fired her in 1991 for failing to comply with "this discriminatory and immoral" policy.

Mari Mayeda, the lead attorney for the California class-action suit, said she also has compiled testimony from Denny's employees who allege that the company instructs its workers not to serve black customers.

A former Denny's manager in San Jose testified several months ago that at district managers' meetings he was instructed to discourage black patronage and that upper-level managers described what to do during "blackouts," a term used to describe a situation in which "too many" black customers were in the restaurant.

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