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Urth Caffe reaches settlement with Muslim women who said they were kicked out because of their hijabs

Urth Caffe reaches settlement with Muslim women who said they were kicked out because of their hijabs
Sara Farsakh, 29, left, with three other plaintiffs and one of their lawyers, who sued Urth Caffe in Laguna Beach for discrimination, alleging they were targeted in 2016 for being "visibly Muslim." (Anh Do / Los Angeles Times)

Urth Caffe has agreed to hold diversity training for its employees under the terms of a settlement with a group of Muslim women who sued the chain for discrimination, alleging they were ousted from its Laguna Beach location for being “visibly Muslim.”

The settlement, reached this week, comes after two years of litigation. The seven women agreed to drop their lawsuit, and the coffee and tea chain agreed to drop a countersuit in which it accused the women of trespassing. Neither party admitted fault.

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“It has been a long time coming, but we’re very pleased with the settlement,” said Mohammad Tajsar, an American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California attorney representing the women. “We think the settlement reestablishes the obligations of restaurants and places of public accommodation to treat customers equally under the law.”

According to the women’s lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, they had gathered for dinner on a Friday night in April 2016 and sat at an outdoor patio table. Six of the seven women, all of whom live in or were born in Orange County, wore head scarves.

The group had been seated for about an hour and were having coffee and dessert when an employee told them they had to leave because they were violating the restaurant’s policy allowing a 45-minute stay during peak times, according to the ACLU of Southern California, which represented the plaintiffs along with the Pasadena law firm Hadsell Stormer & Renick.

There were numerous empty tables at the restaurant, and a group of non-Muslim women who had been there longer told the women that they themselves had not been asked to leave, Tajsar said.

A manager called police and told them the Muslim women refused requests to leave. Laguna Beach police who arrived at the scene “did see empty tables, but there was no survey done of how many people were in the restaurant,” department spokesman Jason Kravetz told The Times in 2016.

Accompanied by the officers, the group “very respectfully left, having paid their bill,” Kravetz said. The women took to social media, posting video showing the police officers and empty tables throughout the restaurant.

In July 2016, Urth countersued the women, alleging that they had been trespassing. The cafe hired the American Freedom Law Center, which describes itself on its website as the country’s “first truly authentic Judeo-Christian, public-interest law firm.”

In a news release about the settlement posted on its website Friday, the law center included a black-and-white photo of some of the Muslim plaintiffs with the word “FRAUD” printed over it in red letters. The release said Urth Caffe, particularly its Laguna Beach location, is a popular gathering place for Muslim customers.

“This lawsuit was a fraud and a hoax from the get-go,” David Yerushalmi, the law firm’s founder and senior counsel, said in a statement. “After two years of litigation and after Plaintiffs’ leftist/progressive lawyers, including the ACLU, spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to force a huge financial payoff for themselves and their clients at Urth Caffe’s expense, they have received no money whatsoever and have effectively dropped their claims only to run for the hills.”

The law firm called the plaintiffs “the seven litigious Muslim women.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist movements, describes Yerushalmi as an “anti-Muslim activist who is a leading proponent of the idea that the United States is threatened by the imposition of Muslim religious law, known as Shariah.”

The settlement came a few days before the case was set to go to trial, Tajsar said.

Tajsar compared the case to the April arrest of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, which sparked a national outcry and prompted the company to close more than 8,000 stores for a day to conduct anti-bias training for its employees.

“We think this is our version of Philadelphia Starbucks, but right here in Southern California,” Tajsar said.

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As part of the settlement, Urth Caffe will amend its seating policy to more clearly inform customers on written placards placed on patio tables that when there are 10 or more customers queuing at the register, the 45-minute seating time limit will be enforced, court documents state. The policy will apply only to patio tables, and, after the time limit is reached, customers may be asked to leave, share their table or place additional orders.

The company will also conduct diversity and sensitivity training at its human resources headquarters in Los Angeles for area supervisors, who will hold on-site training sessions for all employees.

Urth also plans to offer free drinks and desserts to all customers at its Laguna Beach location on Saturday to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, according to the settlement.

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