What began as an enjoyable day at last year's Corona del Mar Christmas Walk has resulted in a legal claim of racial discrimination against Landmark Steakhouse, along with questions about whether Corona del Mar is a hostile community to African Americans.
Mark McHenry filed a federal lawsuit on March 29 seeking unspecified monetary payment for "mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation" resulting from racial slurs used in place of his name on two Dec. 5, 2010 receipts from the Landmark Steakhouse, where he was a regular customer.
Landmark owner Mario Marovic said in an interview that since he learned of the lawsuit, he has been conducting an investigation and that an employee was suspended and then terminated late Wednesday.
"It's not something we condone or foster in any way," Marovic said of the claims of racism. "I don't know how this could have happened. It really upsets me. We would have resolved this situation immediately" if he'd been aware of the allegations.
The suit claims that McHenry, who is African American, moved to Corona del Mar in 2007 and soon became a regular patron of the Landmark Steakhouse at 3520 E. Coast Highway. The restaurant, which opened five years ago, is popular with celebrities, including Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, and often has a long line waiting for seats in the popular patio area.
McHenry's suit claims that even before the Christmas Walk incident, however, he sometimes didn't like the way he was treated.
"Landmark employees occasionally made comments to Plaintiff McHenry like 'black is the new white,' or would comment that he was 'getting served before the white people.' While Plaintiff McHenry did not necessarily like these comments, he let them go," the suit says.
During the Corona del Mar Christmas Walk on Dec. 5, the suit says, McHenry and some friends stopped by Landmark, where a manager let them skip the long line and escorted into the bar through the kitchen. He had a few drinks, paid his tab and left, then later returned.
The next day, the suit says, McHenry reviewed his receipts and was "shocked and appalled" to see racial slurs used in the space designated for a customer name. The suit includes images of the receipts.
The suit states that he "suffered extreme embarrassment and mental distress for patronizing a business and for being friendly with bartenders who were making a public mockery of him without his knowledge," the suit states. "He feels like the butt of an ongoing and cruel joke."
The suit claims that these slurs were used instead of his name on receipts "over an extended period of time."
The suit also claims that the employee who used the slurs texted and left numerous messages of apology for the incidents, but that the "desperate apologies" were aimed to protect the employee and not out of true remorse, making him "feel worse."
McHenry now hangs out at The Quiet Woman, where he could be found if anyone wanted to make a true apology, the suit states.
"He does not feel welcome returning to (Landmark), and indeed the series of events has caused him to question everyone he interacts with in Corona Del Mar. Plaintiff feels robbed of his sense of trust in other people…"
"As a result of these racist acts, Plaintiff has lost his trust in the community," the suit states. "He feels like the target of a joke, and feels ridiculed, isolated, angry and embarrassed."
Marovic said that Landmark has a racially diverse staff both in front and back of the restaurant, and that his clientele also is racially mixed. Allegations of racism cut to the core, he said, and he worries how it could affect his business.
"I'm very concerned," he said.
Corona del Mar Chamber of Commerce President Linda Leonhard issued this statement:
"We sincerely hope the Plaintiff recognizes that the community is in no way associated with the alleged incident and hope that the exchange of words in a local bar does not reflect a negative image for him on the community as a whole. The Christmas Walk is a 33 year old tradition in the community and greatly accomplishes its mission of increasing the economic revenue to the CDM Business District during the holiday shopping season.
"It is an event that generations look forward to celebrating with family and friends and the Chamber works very diligently to keep it entertaining and safe for all to enjoy. Although the Landmark Restaurant is not a member of Corona del Mar Chamber of Commerce, they do partake in the festivities of the day and benefit from its revenue. It further saddens me that such a successful community event is even mentioned in the lawsuit."
The news was first reported by the Orange County Register.
CdMHS construction could cause parking problems
The good news: Construction could begin as soon as this school year ends to make way for a new theater and a middle school enclave on the Corona del Mar High School campus.
The bad news: Construction also is expected to begin across the street at Our Lady Queen of Angels, meaning that traffic and parking problems will be a fact of life, at least temporarily.
At the recent CdM PTA meeting, Karen Yelsey of the Newport-Mesa Board of Education said the board this week approved selling of bonds for the Corona del Mar theater and enclave projects.
"We should start construction, or beginning some work, this summer as soon as school is out," she said.
A parent in the audience asked about how construction and staging of construction equipment could affect parking, particularly in the senior lot, once school begins in the fall.
Principal Tim Bryan said that parking has been a topic of discussion, especially because Our Lady Queen of Angels is close to beginning construction of its new church across the street.
A meeting was held this spring, he said, to coordinate construction schedules and make plans for parking.
"They really have done a lot of work to make sure we're not stepping on each other's toes," he said.
Plans are in the works to create temporary parking lots on grassy areas along Mar Vista, he said.
"We're going to be impacted no matter what," he said. "All driving students will be impacted."
Currently, the pool lot could be designated as student parking only, with faculty and visitors restricted to the front lot, he said.
PTA members at the meeting also requested that the district website be updated with the most current iterations of the plans.
The theater and enclave projects are being funded through Measure F, which voters approved in 2005 and which already paid for projects including the Newport Harbor Loats Theater. Corona del Mar High School will get a new theater, and the campus will be changed to accommodate an area for middle school students.
The theater project is expected to cost about $18.9 million, and the enclave has a budget of $23.2 million, district officials said.