An arbitrator has ruled that a former waitress at a Manchester-based Longhorn Steakhouse was retaliated against after she claimed black patrons were being segregated at the restaurant. The incident allegedly happened on one evening in November 2016, and there was no evidence offered that the Darden-owned business had a systematic practice of segregating guests.
Arbitrator Joseph Garrison said there was proof that the waitress, Valerie Swinson, who is part white and part Hispanic, was retaliated against with her termination just days after she complained about the alleged segregation at the eatery. Swinson said she was singled out to wait on the black customers who were allegedly being segregated.
Garrison, who works for Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti in New Haven and was agreed upon by both sides, said that, while retaliation was proven, the plaintiffs could not prove Swinson was discriminated against.
“There is no serious question that Swinson was subject to an adverse action,” Garrison wrote in his 12-page Aug. 17 ruling. “Her employment was terminated because of her complaint.”
The arbitrator said Swinson, a Bristol resident who worked at the restaurant for 2½ years, is entitled to compensation for the retaliation. Garrison urged both sides to come to an agreement on monetary damages, but it’s not clear whether they will be able to do that.
Richard Hayber, owner of the Hayber Law Firm and Swinson’s attorney, told the Connecticut Law Tribune Wednesday that, while he would not disclose his demand letter for compensation, he did say he’d be seeking at least $300,000.
“The cap for emotional distress and punitive damages combined for a restaurant that size is $300,000. Our client is entitled to the cap,” Hayber said.
Restaurant management came back with claims that Swinson, whose children are black, made derogatory comments on how black customers tipped. Those statements were blatantly false, Hayber said.
“They were accusing her of being racist. There was no proof of this and the arbitrator rejected it,” Hayber said. “She was, of course, deeply offended to be accused of racism given her family status.” Hayber noted that Swinson’s ex-husband was black.
During the evening in question, Hayber said Swinson approached a white hostess and a manager on the seating of blacks in a segregated area, both of whom denied the accusations. Swinson wrote out a statement and was fired days later.
With regard to Eric O’Keefe, managing partner of the Manchester eatery, Garrison wrote, in part: “There is no dispute that O’Keefe was the decision-maker. I find it was O’Keefe who violated Darden’s policies, lost or destroyed significant documents, negligently investigated and lied about the input of other management personnel.’”
Reached Wednesday at the restaurant, O’Keefe declined to comment.
Hayber said his client, who today is ill and unable to work, “feels vindicated” by the arbitrator’s ruling.
Said Hayber: “It’s important to hold companies liable for retaliation against people who point out discrimination. They (companies) need to do more than just write policies, but to follow through with procedures when they (employees) complain.”
The restaurant is allowed to appeal to Superior Court after the process plays out. The restaurant is represented by Elizabeth McKenna, an associate with the New Haven offices of Littler Mendelson. McKenna declined to comment Wednesday.