Ashburton middle school group sues Denny's chain, claiming discrimination

June 08, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Thirty black Baltimore middle school pupils and their chaperons on a class trip to Walt Disney World have filed suit in federal court against Denny's restaurants, claiming they were mistreated at one of the chain's Florida outlets because of race.

A spokeswoman for the chain -- which has been operating under a consent decree not to discriminate since it reached a $46 million agreement with the federal government five years ago -- denied the allegations yesterday and said the company would vigorously contest the suit.

The suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleges the group from Ashburton Elementary-Middle School in the northwest part of the city was discriminated against in April 1998 by a Denny's restaurant in Ocoee, Fla., where it was provided with inferior service.

The suit, which asks for an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, said the group had to wait an excessive amount of time to be seated and served, and that some members of the group received drinks in dirty glasses -- including one that appeared to have spit in the bottom.

"The group had to wait so long for service that some of the students actually fell asleep on their respective tables and had to be carried out of the restaurant," the suit said.

Marshall N. Perkins, one of the attorneys representing the group, said it was clear that Denny's had not "met the obligations it undertook" in the 1994 consent decree.

When members of the Ashburton group first talked publicly about their experience, the company's president said in a statement that he was sorry they did not feel welcome at the restaurant and promised swift action if an investigation revealed discrimination.

Yesterday, Ray Hood-Phillips, chief diversity officer at South Carolina-based Advantica Restaurant Group, parent company of the Denny's chain, said an internal inquiry turned up no evidence of wrongdoing and said the chain "will be litigating this vigorously."

Hood-Phillips said that the arrival of the large group without notice brought the restaurant "to a standstill."

Service "took too long, but there was no discrimination," she said. "We are a lightning rod for these kinds of allegations because of our history."

The Office of the Civil Rights Monitor, an independent third party that reports to the Justice Department on compliance with the consent decree, also conducted an inquiry.

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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