Lawsuit: Bias against 'fat, black or ugly' at Panera franchisee

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A Panera Bread franchisee had a policy of keeping "fat, black or ugly" people off of the cash registers and out of management positions, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court today that seeks class action status.

The lawsuit by Guy M. Vines, 21, of Castle Shannon, claims that Panera franchisee Covelli Enterprises discouraged managers from hiring African Americans, and then relegated them to menial, back-of-the-shop roles.

It follows a lawsuit filed in November by a former Panera Bread manager who said he was fired under pretenses after he objected to such policies. Both Mr. Vines and the former manager are represented by attorney Sam Cordes.

"Here there was a policy that we don't promote, nor do we allow people that are black, fat or ugly to work up in the front of our store," said Mr. Cordes today. "If you're black, we don't allow you to work in the front, and we don't promote you into management."

Covelli Enterprises responded with a statement from its director of corporate affairs, Allen Ryan.

"These complaints represent a coordinated attempt by two disgruntled former employees to discredit the company for a profit motive," Mr. Ryan wrote. "The timing of Mr. Vines's complaint ... is suspect in that is was filed only a few weeks after his attorney filed a lawsuit against Covelli on behalf of Mr. Vines's former manager whom ironically Mr. Vines's complaint charges with discriminating against him by assigning him to the least desirable tasks within the caf??."

Mr. Vines, who is black, worked at Panera at the Galleria in Mt. Lebanon from November 2009 through August 2011, according to the complaint. While he was there, a district manager told a store manager that Sam Covelli, of Covelli Enterprises, might give them both a "death sentence" if he saw Mr. Vines working a cash register, because Mr. Vines was a "that" -- code for an African American.

Because Mr. Vines was a good employee, the store manager continued to periodically put him on the cash register, and tried to promote him, the complaint said. He was repeatedly reprimanded, however, and was not allowed to promote Mr. Vines, it said.

Mr. Vines eventually was forced to quit because of the policies, the complaint said.

"The fact is that Mr. Vines walked off his shift in the wake of being disciplined for repeatedly violating the company's dress code policy and other company policies related to health and safety standards," Mr. Ryan wrote.

Mr. Cordes said he now works at another restaurant. He seeks actual, compensatory and punitive damages.

Mr. Vines seeks to represent the interests of all African Americans hired at Panera Bread branches owned by Covelli Enterprises, which is based in Warren, Ohio. Mr. Cordes said that the class of plaintiffs does not include overweight or "ugly" people.

The earlier lawsuit was filed by Scott Donatelli, who managed the Galleria location from 2007 through mid-2011. Mr. Cordes said he objected to the Covelli Enterprises personnel policies, and was dismissed when he needed extra time off to recover from surgery.

Covelli Enterprises last week filed an answer to the complaint broadly denying accusations of discrimination, and saying the franchisee "maintained policies prohibiting unlawful conduct and [kept] a work environment free from unlawful discrimination."

That case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry.


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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