Couple sue Denny's for $72 million

March 31, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

The dispute at the Denny's restaurant in Severn started over whose hair was in Sheryl Neal's waffles, escalated into an argument that sent her and her date to Anne Arundel County jail cells for a night, and has now taken the form of a $72 million lawsuit.

Ms. Neal, a 41-year-old technician at Georgetown University, and Cashmere Lenzie Hardy, a 45-year-old plumber at the University of Maryland at College Park, filed the suit yesterday in Anne Arundel Circuit Court. Their main complaint is about how the manager of the restaurant in the 2600 block of Annapolis Road responded to the dispute and their refusal to pay the $7.09 check.

The suit names as defendants Denny's Inc. and the management firms responsible for the Severn-based franchise, WDPB Inc. and Operations Management Inc.

Ms. Neal and Mr. Hardy, who are black, say they were handcuffed and shoved into a police car and spent the night in the Police Department's Western District lockup.

"It's an outrageous story. Anyone who has an ounce of dignity will be and should be outraged by this," said their lawyer, Suellen Poland.

The suit comes a year after six black Secret Service agents publicly criticized the Denny's restaurant chain. They said that while in Annapolis to protect President Clinton last April, they were not served at a Denny's on West Street. They said their white colleagues, who were sitting at a nearby table, were served with no delay.

After several protests by civil rights activists, Denny's parent company, TW Services, signed an agreement in July with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People assuring that 53 restaurants, including the one in Annapolis, would become black-owned franchises by 1997.

Ms. Poland said she could not be sure if race was a factor in the incident involving her clients.

Frank Laws, a lawyer for Denny's, said the couple were arrested because Mr. Hardy refused to pay for his hamburger, even though he had no complaints about it and was repeatedly warned that he would be arrested if he refused.

"The unstated fact in that suit is that he received food, never complained about it and never paid for it," said Mr. Laws.

According to the suit, Ms. Neal and Mr. Hardy entered the restaurant at 2:40 a.m. July 3, 1992, and ordered a meal. Ms. Neal, who the suit says has brown hair, then discovered a "long, black hair" in her waffles.

The waitress took the food back to the kitchen, but a few minutes later, the night manager, William G. Barrett, brought it back to the table, saying the hair was neither his nor the waitress,' so that it had to belong to Ms. Neal, the suit said.

Distressed by Mr. Barrett's "rude and obnoxious conduct," the couple decided to leave, even though Mr. Hardy "did not touch" his food, according to the suit. They went to the register, insisting that they would pay only for their coffee. However, Mr. Barrett insisted that Mr. Hardy pay for his meal, or the couple would be arrested.

Police were called after the couple refused to pay. They were taken to the station, fingerprinted, photographed and locked in separate cells that the 22-page suit described as being dirty, cold and "insect-infested."

The theft charges against them were dropped three months later when they showed up for trial in District Court in Glen Burnie.

Ms. Poland would not let her clients be interviewed. She said neither had ever been locked up and they remain shaken by the experience.

"These are regular, middle-class people -- for lack of a better word, yuppies -- who are generally very calm and dignified in how they approach things," she said.

Mr. Laws said the couple brought the arrest on themselves by choosing not to pay the tab. They could have paid and complained to Denny's management by telephone or in writing the next day, he said.

"If everybody who came in with a $7 check decided they didn't want to pay, it would be pretty hard to make a living," he said.

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