6 black Secret Service agents to share in settlement of Denny's bias suit

May 25, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers James Bock and Nelson Schwartz contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Six black Secret Service officers who sued the Denny's restaurant chain last year for discriminatory treatment at an Annapolis restaurant are among 58 plaintiffs nationwide who will collect between $15,000 and $35,000 each under a settlement announced yesterday by the Justice Department.

The $46 million agreement, in which Denny's also promised to try to prevent any future racial bias against customers, amounts to the largest corporate program ever to avert discrimination in public places.

Denny's agreed to sensitivity training for employees, to the use of testers to check for discrimination at its restaurants and to the appointment of a monitor to investigate bias complaints and oversee the company's compliance with the settlement.

"With today's action, the message is clear: There will be a high price to pay for unlawful indignities, and the Justice Department will exact that price wherever the law is violated," Deval L. Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said yesterday at a news conference.

In the lawsuits, Denny's and its employees were accused of failing to serve blacks or of requiring them to pay a cover charge and pay their bills before receiving their meals. The chain's employees also were accused of ejecting black customers, segregating black from white customers, using racial epithets, failing to honor advertised specials for black customers and trying to limit the number of black customers in a restaurant at any one time.

Justice Department officials said the settlement called for the most sweeping preventive measures and largest monetary damages ever agreed to in a case involving the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin in public facilities, such as health clubs, hotels and restaurants. The $46 million payout will be made to the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Baltimore, to plaintiffs in a separate suit filed in San Jose, Calif., and to thousands of others who allege they were discriminated against in Denny's restaurants across the country.

"I thought the fight for the right to eat in a restaurant was a thing of the past," said Alfonso M. Dyson of Upper Marlboro, one of six Secret Service officers who were part of the lawsuit filed against Denny's in Baltimore. "I never thought any of this would happen to me. This is the 1990s."

The Secret Service officers filed suit against Denny's on May 24, 1993, alleging they were not served breakfast at the restaurant on West Street in Annapolis while their white colleagues received their meals promptly. The agents had been in Annapolis to provide security for a visit by President Clinton to the Naval Academy.

As a result of the Maryland suit, which was expanded to include other plaintiffs, Denny's has agreed to pay $17.7 million in damages. Each Secret Service officer named in the suit will receive $35,000. Twelve other named plaintiffs in the Maryland suit will each receive $15,000.

The agreement calls for the balance of the money to be paid out equally to people who file claims under penalty of perjury with a court officer who would substantiate their applications. About 1,300 claimants have been identified thus far in the Maryland lawsuit.

"The money is not really important," said Joseph W. James, a Secret Service officer and plaintiff who lives in Upper Marlboro. "What is important are the sanctions against Denny's."

John P. Relman, of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, who helped bring the case in Baltimore, called the settlement historic. He said: "It puts a price on the indignities that black Americans endure every day at restaurants and public places all across America."

Attorneys who brought the lawsuits said they were convinced that the discriminatory attitude at Denny's went far beyond a few isolated instances.

"These are the stories repeated again and again," Mr. Patrick said.

If approved by judges in the two courts where they were filed, the settlements would end two widely publicized lawsuits against Denny's -- something the company said would allow it to begin rebuilding its image among black customers.

Denny's also announced yesterday that it had settled a 1993 complaint filed by a children's choir with the Prince William County, Va., Human Rights Commission. The complaint alleged that Denny's refused service to 132 people traveling with the choir because they were black.

In settling that complaint, the restaurant chain promised to pay $450,000 to college scholarship funds and to several organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Jerome J. Richardson, chairman of Flagstar Companies Inc. of South Carolina, the $1.5-billion-a-year corporate parent of Denny's, called the settlements "the end of a very painful chapter in Denny's history. We want to put this issue behind us."

Meanwhile, NAACP leaders welcomed yesterday's settlement and said that they "intend to continue closely monitoring Flagstar's compliance with all provisions in the fair share agreement."

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