Tuesday, August 2, 2005

RICHMOND — The company that operates some Waffle House restaurants has agreed to settle four civil rights lawsuits stemming from charges of discrimination against customers at at least three establishments in Virginia.

The settlement agreement, announced yesterday, requires Northlake Foods Inc. to enact compliance programs to ensure its restaurants’ customers are treated equally, regardless of race, color or national origin.

“We are very pleased with the results,” said Susan Huhta of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, a group that represented the plaintiffs in the Virginia lawsuits and in lawsuits filed in other states claiming discrimination against black, Asian-American and Hispanic customers at Waffle House.

“The fact that we found common ground, the fact that Northlake has agreed to make these changes made a positive settlement possible.”

Other terms of the settlement are confidential.

The 12 plaintiffs sought unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, but she declined to comment on whether the company agreed to any financial settlement.

“While Northlake does not believe it violated any laws, Northlake believes that its new partnership with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee will greatly assist the company’s efforts to communicate its customer commitment to all of our employees,” said company President Daryl Saylor.

A phone message left yesterday afternoon for Erin Cockley, vice president for Tampa, Fla.-based Northlake, was not returned.

The suits were filed against Waffle House restaurants in Hopewell, Fredericksburg and Chesapeake on behalf of nine black, one Hispanic and two Asian-American plaintiffs.

The suits, filed in federal courts in Richmond and Norfolk, said the plaintiffs were denied service or subjected to discriminatory treatment when they tried to dine at Northlake Foods-operated Waffle Houses.

In the lawsuits, the plaintiffs said they were treated rudely, left waiting to be seated while other later-arriving patrons were given tables and even served a fly-infested order of grits, then berated by staff after complaining about the service.

Another plaintiff said he and his family were ordered out of a restaurant after waiting for 45 minutes while white customers came in and were seated by a hostess.

More than 15 similar lawsuits are pending against Waffle House and other franchisees in four other states, according to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. Northlake Foods owns and operates 149 restaurants in Florida, Georgia and Virginia.

Under the settlement agreement, Northlake agreed to:

• Clarify its policies to ensure equal treatment for all customers.

• Have a consultant design a training program for management and hourly workers that addresses customer discrimination issues.

• Have a compliance officer improve company policy on how the company will investigate and respond to future customer complaints.

• Provide reporting to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and work with the group on maintaining current policies and procedures on customer treatment.

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