In an unprecedented legal agreement, African American customers who were refused service, asked to pay in advance, seated in segregated areas or subjected to other hostile treatment because of their race will share in a $54-million settlement from Denny's, the restaurant chain. That is the largest nationwide settlement in any public accommodations case since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"These settlements . . . put corporate America on notice that discrimination in public places will be just as costly as discrimination in housing and discrimination in employment," Deval Patrick, the new head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said. He said the department is investigating 20 such cases.
Denny's admits no wrongdoing, but attorneys who initiated class-action lawsuits against Denny's, including some from the Public Interest Law Firm in San Jose, cited many examples. The most notorious incident involved six black Secret Service agents who were refused service for nearly an hour at a Denny's in Annapolis, Md. They were in that state to provide security during a visit by President Clinton. While they were forced to wait, 14 white agents and a black agent who sat with them were quickly served.
The Annapolis incident happened on the very day that a federal judge in California ordered Denny's to stop discriminating against black customers. That case started when 18 black high school and college students who had attended an NAACP college information program went to a Denny's restaurant in San Jose and were required to prepay for meals or pay a cover charge before they were seated. That incident led to a class-action suit alleging 3,000 racial incidents at Denny's restaurants in Los Angeles, Costa Mesa, San Diego, Sacramento and elsewhere in California.
Denny's has also agreed to hire a civil rights monitor, retrain all its employees, run racially diverse advertisements and conduct random tests for discrimination at its restaurants.
Racial discrimination in public places has long been against the law. But laws are meaningless without strong enforcement. The Denny's settlement is a welcome sign that Washington once again intends to vigorously enforce civil rights laws.