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Miami Beach’s famed Joe’s Stone Crab is again a defendant in a discrimination suit. This time, a former waiter claims racial bias by Joe’s management led to his dismissal in late 2000. But the restaurant says it fired Haitian-American Phil Chavannes, 31, after a patron complained he spit into a pitcher of water used to fill finger bowls. Chavannes vehemently denies the charge. For 11 years, the landmark restaurant has been fighting claims by four women that it hired only men for its coveted server positions between 1986 and 1991. That case, brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is on appeal before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The latest suit was brought in Miami federal court. U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore is presiding over the case. Chavannes, who arrived in the United States from Haiti in 1981, and who started work at Joe’s in 1997, alleges that management unfairly retaliated against him after he outlined complaints of racial discrimination in a letter to the restaurant. He is suing for unfair discrimination and retaliatory discharge under § 1981 and Title VII of the federal code, under the state civil rights law and under the state whistleblower statute. He is seeking lost pay, benefits and compensatory and punitive damages for humiliation after Joe’s had a Miami Beach police officer escort him from the restaurant in plain view of fellow employees and patrons after the alleged spitting incident. According to Chavannes’ attorney, Dana M. Gallup, a solo practitioner in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., damages could exceed $500,000. Chavannes complains that Joe’s imposed a stricter disciplinary standard and heightened scrutiny on blacks, denied black employees promotions and gave black employees less-favorable job assignments than whites. In particular, he alleges Joe’s regularly acquiesced to customers who requested white waiters instead of black waiters, thereby limiting black waiters’ income, said Gallup. “Management would tell Phil, ‘Those customers want a white waiter,’” said Gallup. Representing Joe’s, attorney Robert D. Hertzberg of the Law Offices of Robert D. Hertzberg in Miami denied the claim. “A flat-out lie,” he said. “Chavannes was fired as a result of a customer complaint that he was observed spitting into a water pitcher on numerous occasions,” said Hertzberg. Joe’s supports its claim with an affidavit from the customer, Mitchell Lerner from Melville, N.Y. In the affidavit, Lerner states that on the night of Dec. 23, 2000, he ate at Joe’s and observed Chavannes “on a minimum of four occasions” spit into a pitcher located on a nearby table. “I was shocked and extremely upset by this server’s actions,” Lerner states in the affidavit. According to the lawsuit, which was filed by Chavannes in February, he began working as a waiter at Joe’s in October 1997, was promoted to head captain, then demoted to waiter before his dismissal at the end of 2000. Chavannes alleges that on the night of Dec. 23, after Lerner complained about him spitting into the water pitcher, Joe’s management immediately suspended him. Four days later, Chavannes alleges, he faxed a letter to the restaurant’s human resources office and complained he had been discriminated against because of his race and that he was being treated unfairly in the alleged spitting incident. In the letter Chavannes wrote he has “repeatedly received disproportionate discipline and penalized financially for ‘offenses’ which committed by white employees have gone unpunished.” Yet, just before faxing the letter, he telephoned an employee in the human resources office who told him that other staff had not witnessed any spitting incident and that he was to report to work the next day, Dec. 28. Despite the reinstatement, according to Chavannes, he faxed the letter anyway. Upon returning to Joe’s, Chavannes worked his entire shift. But at the end of the day, he was informed he had been fired. Chavannes suspects the letter triggered his firing. In an interview, Hertzberg said that after the customer complaint on Dec. 23, Joe’s placed Chavannes on a three-day suspension to investigate the matter. He said Chavannes was not fired until Dec. 28 because it was not until then that Lerner, the upset customer, could be contacted. After Joe’s general manager Brian Johnson and Hertzberg spoke with Lerner and the customer reaffirmed his version of the events, Chavannes was fired, said Hertzberg. Nevertheless, Chavannes’ attorney points to two sworn affidavits by former Joe’s employees — one black and one white — who support Chavannes’ claim of racial discrimination at Joe’s. In one affidavit, Orlando Hill, who worked at the restaurant for nearly seven years, claims that black employees were not promoted commensurate to whites and were often disciplined more than whites. Hill, who is black, alleges in his affidavit that general manager Johnson once ordered his car towed when he parked across the street from Joe’s. Yet, Johnson took no action when whites parked across the street, Hill claimed. Hill alleges that captains would regularly seat well-tipping customers at tables served by white waiters. Hill also alleges that white employees would drink on the job — and even charge the drinks to customer checks. He says management did fire one of those employees, but rehired him. But a black employee accused of drinking on the job was discharged and never returned. In his affidavit, Hill raises doubts about the spitting allegation against Chavannes. “Given the set-up of the room and the number of other employees and customers in the room that night, it would have been virtually impossible for Phil to have spit in the container without a number of people seeing it,” Hill wrote. Similarly, John Buchanan, a white server who worked at Joe’s for several years, re-alleges many of the same assertions in his sworn affidavit. In addition, he states: “I felt that management was targeting Phil and … I did not want to lie to assist management in firing Phil.” Hertzberg responded that both Hill and Buchanan were fired by Joe’s after each compiled a significant number of customer and employee complaints. Chavannes is now in Las Vegas looking for a job.

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