A federal jury in Atlanta took just 20 minutes Friday to decide that managers of a Buckhead restaurant hadn’t discriminated against a former professional basketball player and an attorney, both African-Americans, when they were ordered to leave after refusing to surrender their seats to two white women.
The jury of five men and five women, including three African-Americans, reached their verdict after a weeklong trial in which former NBA player Joe Barry Carroll and Atlanta attorney Joseph S. Shaw sought as much as $3 million in damages for what they claimed were violations of federal civil rights laws by the staff and owners of The Tavern at Phipps in Buckhead.
The centerpiece of the trial was a practice that the Tavern referred to as “Southern hospitality,” in which men seated at the bar were asked to give up their seats to women who came in after them.
On the evening of Aug. 11, 2006, Carroll and Shaw were seated at the far end of the bar finishing drinks and appetizers when a bartender asked them to move, saying their seats were needed for two women. When they declined, the bartender offered them drinks and a table elsewhere in the restaurant, which the two men also rejected, precipitating an incident that eventually involved a second bartender, two restaurant managers and an off-duty, uniformed Atlanta police officer who was moonlighting as the restaurant’s in-house security guard. The officer eventually escorted the two men out of the restaurant at the restaurant managers’ insistence—not because they were disruptive but because they refused to abide by the restaurant’s unwritten policy that favored women.
“We’re obviously very pleased with the outcome,” said Atlanta attorney Simon H. Bloom, general counsel for The Tavern Corp. and CentraArchy Restaurant Management Co., the firms that own and manage the Tavern. “But it is a hollow, Pyrrhic victory because of what the family has had to go through and the money they have had to spend to defend what has now been confirmed by the system as a frivolous lawsuit.
“If a 20-minute decision after five days of testimony does not confirm what I’ve said all along—that this case has always been meritless—I do not know what does,” Bloom said.
The companies, owned by Greg Greenbaum, own and manage nearly two dozen restaurants throughout the Southeast, including three in Atlanta.
Bloom credited the defense trial team—including Greenberg Traurig attorneys Ernest L. Greer, David W. Long-Daniels (chairman of Greenberg’s labor and employment practice), and Stephanie L. Oginsky and Michael Ross of Taylor English—with winning a favorable verdict for the Tavern.
Jurors skipped lunch to deliver the quick verdict, Bloom said.
“I’ve never seen that happen in my career. It is just resounding corroboration that the suit had no merit, and the events were really not about race,” he said.
Greer, who gave the closing argument Friday for the defense, said the jury “probably took 15 minutes too long.”
“Let me say this,” Greer said. “When you talk about race discrimination, we are mindful of the pains that one who has been discriminated against feels. But we sometimes lose sight of the hurt and the pain of the person who has been accused feels. Where Mr. Carroll and Mr. Shaw were focused on the years it took to get to a jury, there was no focus on the number of years our clients were waiting to be heard.” And, he added, “We wanted to be heard.”
Long-Daniels said the case was about “good manners.”
“They had a client who, in his actions and words, had his own bigotry to deal with. He actually wanted to use his own status to be treated better than others at the bar. Every other man at the bar gave up his seat. He didn’t want to give up his seat because he was an NBA great,” Long-Daniels said of Carroll.
The attorney said Tavern bartenders had testified in depositions that other African-Americans, including former NBA star Michael Jordan and former Atlanta Falcons player Drew Hill, had surrendered their seats to the Tavern’s female customers. Neither Jordan nor Hill testified at the trial.
“This place treats women with a great deal of care,” Long-Daniels said. “We don’t apologize for that. We were very disheartened with the way they tried to make Greg Greenbaum a racist.”
The managers of Greenbaum’s three Buckhead restaurants—the Tavern, the Lenox Grill and New York Prime—are all minorities, Long-Daniels said, adding that 40 percent of Greenbaum’s employees are African-American. Greenbaum, he said, has also financed relief missions to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake.
“How do you call that guy a racist?” he asked. “It just didn’t have legs.”
Atlanta civil rights lawyer Gerald R. Weber, one of several attorneys who represented Carroll and Shaw, said he was “stunned.”
“It appears that the jury did not connect the testimony confirming racially discriminatory practices in employment, staffing and services [at the Tavern] with the experience of our clients as customers that night,” Weber said in an email to the Daily Report following the verdict. Lead plaintiffs’ counsel, Jeffrey O. Bramlett of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, couldn’t be reached for comment.
After the verdict, Carroll told the Daily Report he isdisappointed with the outcome. But he said he had no regrets about bringing the case.
“I had to do it. There was no way for me to get around bringing the lawsuit,” Carroll said.
“It had to be done,” he continued. “It was a responsibility that I have. I couldn’t come back to my family and my community after they did that back in 2006 and tell them I did nothing about it. I did the very best I could. I got the best people to plead my case. The other side got the verdict, but that does not mean they did not discriminate. They did. They know they did. I know they did. Everybody involved knows they did. We haven’t reached a point where the courts will recognize that.”
During the 1980s, Carroll played for the Golden State Warriors. He spent subsequent seasons with the Houston Rockets, the New Jersey Nets, the Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns before retiring in 1991.
Shaw couldn’t be reached for comment.
In closing arguments Friday, Bramlett argued that the Tavern’s practice of asking men to surrender seats at the bar to waiting women was “a means to an end” to accomplish what he said was restaurant owner Greenbaum’s real goal—to maintain a “predominantly white clientele” at the popular Buckhead watering hole.
Greenbaum’s business objective in implementing the practice—and a second policy of allowing no more than one African-American hostess to work a shift—was to prevent the Tavern’s clientele from tilting “too far black,” Bramlett said.
“Greg had a fear that blacks in the bar would attract blacks, maybe thugs … that would destroy his business,” the lawyer argued to the jury, citing testimony by an African-American operating manager at the Tavern whom Greenbaum later fired and whom Bramlett acknowledged was “a troubled soul” who had “flamed out” at his job.
Bramlett also reminded the jury that in videotaped testimony, former operating partner Heather Dennis—the manager who summoned an Atlanta police officer to oust Carroll and Shaw from the bar—testified that the Tavern’s bar and patio customers were, by and large, white and that Greenbaum “wanted to keep it generally white.”
He also reminded them that Meredith McCabe, another former operating partner whose videotaped testimony was shown, said Greenbaum likely implemented the hostess policy because, “I imagine he was concerned they would attract young men not of the demographic that he wanted at the Tavern.” That disfavored demographic, she acknowledged, “was hip-hop in general, I think.”
In his closing argument, Greer—who is African-American—told the jury, “I understand the pains of discrimination,” adding that, “I don’t take this lightly.”
But, he said, Carroll, Shaw and their attorneys “came into this courtroom not knowing” that the Tavern’s practice of asking me to give up their bar seats to women “was started by a black man,” referring to one of the Tavern’s former operating partners who was African-American.
Greenbaum’s decision to place two African-Americans and a Puerto Rican in positions as operating partners of his three Buckhead restaurants, Greer told the jury, demonstrated that the Tavern’s policy wasn’t about race.
Calling the Tavern “a neighborhood institution” that is “a gathering place for all people,” Greer told the jury, “Thousands of men of all races have been asked to give up their seats. Thousands of people have been subject to this practice.”
That policy “creates a festive environment where men and women can socialize and where women can feel comfortable,” Greer explained.
“Even if you don’t like it, we are entitled to the verdict. Even if you conclude it discriminates on gender, we are entitled to the verdict. Even if you conclude it’s bad or rude service, we are entitled to the verdict. … This incident didn’t happen because they were black. This incident happened because Mr. Carroll and Mr. Shaw wanted to be treated better than anyone else that evening.”