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Three older French waiters will have their day in court against the iconic midtown Manhattan restaurant “21,” whose director of operations allegedly fired them out of pro-Bush, anti-French fervor. The plaintiffs allege that the defendants “singled out older employees of French national origin with fabricated and false allegations of drinking on the job or other malfeasance and then terminat[ed] those employees.” The firings were part of “a concerted and egregious course of action to rid [itself] of its older and long-term employees of French national origin,” according to the complaint. The restaurant and its co-defendant owner, Orient-Express Hotels, moved to dismiss, alleging among other things that the waiters’ collective bargaining agreement compelled arbitration. Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich disagreed, and denied the motion to dismiss. “When giving the words of the Agreement their ‘plain meaning,’ it is clear that arbitration ‘may’ occur at the petitioner’s option or mutual agreement of the parties,” she held in Bordet v. 21 Club, 108516/05. “Neither situation exists here.” The plaintiffs — Rene Bordet, Yves Thepault and Jean Claude Lesbre — are French nationals, in their 60s and have worked at “21″ for at least a decade. The three allege they were fired in 2004 or 2005 because of their age and national origin. The firings were just one example of “an environment rife with anti-French sentiment” under the restaurant’s director of operations Jeffrey Sacchet, according to the complaint. “For example, Sacchet expressed glee over his perception that President Bush hated the French,” the plaintiffs claimed. “In addition, both Sacchet and [assistant manager Chris] Haarsgaard believed, and expressed their belief, that the French have a propensity, unlike other groups, to consume wine and, as a result, suspected that Bordet had often been impaired and under the influence of alcohol while at work.” The two managers also “repeatedly made fun of Bordet’s French accent” and Sacchet “repeatedly referred to Bordet’s French national origin in a derogatory manner,” according to the complaint. The plaintiffs initiated a suit against “21″ and its corporate owner, alleging that their dismissals violated New York Executive Law �296 and Title 8 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York. The defendants moved to dismiss, alleging that the bargaining agreement required arbitration and that Thepault failed to state a cause of action. Kornreich denied that motion. “[T]he subject arbitration provision itself does not contain mandatory language,” she wrote. “Indeed, the provision states that any disputes ‘may be submitted to final and binding arbitration at the option of the petitioner, the American Arbitration Association or by mutual agreement of the parties.’” She also ruled that Thepault had in fact established a cause of action. One of the plaintiffs attorneys called the firing of the three French waiters “a little counterintuitive” for a “fancy restaurant.” “The accents provided a little je ne c’est quoi, or whatever,” said Edward Hernstadt of Frankfurt, Kurnit, Klein & Selz. But the restaurant is “basically clearing out three of the older guys,” he added. “There are very few French waiters left.” Solo practitioner Thomas S. Rosenthal serves as co-counsel for the plaintiffs. Eric B. Sigda and Peter Stergios of Greenberg Traurig represent the restaurant and its owner. “We still believe that the case has absolutely no merit, we just have to go and establish that now,” Stergios said. Founded as “Jack and Charlie’s ’21′” in 1920, the restaurant is the oldest in New York to be known by its address. The speakeasy used a number of tricks to evade federal agents, including a system of pulleys and levers that could shoot all of the incriminating goods into the city’s sewer system in case of a raid. The entrance was also, confusingly for investigators, at 19 52nd St., not 21. Once favored by the likes of Steinbeck and Hemingway and Bogie and Bacall, “21″ now lists on its Web site such recent celebrity sightings as Al Roker and former Senator and current actor Fred Thompson.

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