Victims of racial attack file suit against Syracuse restaurant
BY HEATHER HARLAN
A federal Civil Rights Monitor has found that employees of a Denny's restaurant discriminated against a group of Japanese and Asian American students who were beaten in an alleged racial attack after being denied service.
Following last week's decision, lawyers for the group this week filed a civil lawsuit against Denny's and employees involved in the incident.
Two members of the group were beaten into unconsciousness during the April 11 incident at a Denny's restaurant in upstate Syracuse, N.Y.
The group of three Japanese, three Asian Americans, and their Caucasian companion--all students at nearby Syracuse University--placed their names on the waiting list after waiting for several minutes inside the restaurant without being attended to. Noticing that empty tables were available and observing that groups of white males who arrived after they did were being seated immediately while their party continued to wait, the students complained. They were then asked to leave the restaurant and escorted out by two Denny's security guards.
According to a complaint filed by the students after the incident, once outside one of the guards pushed one of the students. At that moment, a gang of about 20 white males came out of the restaurant shouting racial epithets and attacked Yuya Hasegawa, an international student from Japan.
"I couldn't eat where I wanted to," Hasegawa said in the complaint. "I was beaten by whoever wanted to beat me. I am not welcomed here."
As his friends attempted to come to his aid, they were also attacked. Despite pleas from the students to intervene, the security guards, who are also deputy sheriffs with the Onondaga Sheriff's Department, stood by and watched as the fight continued. Finally, two African American students who had also been waiting to be seated finally stepped in and pulled the whites away.
By the end of the melee two of the Asian American students were beaten into unconsciousness and two others were injured.
After an investigation, Sharon Lybeck Hartmann, a third-party Civil Rights Monitor, recommended in a decision issued last Wednesday that the manager who ordered the students to leave the restaurant after they complained about the unfair treatment be fired and the security guards, who are no longer employed by Denny's, should not be rehired. The monitor also said that the hostess who initially ignored the group should be suspended without pay and reprimanded.
Lawsuits filed after complaints of racial discrimination toward African American customers at Denny's franchises in California and Maryland resulted in legal settlements made in 1994 that require Denny's to report any allegations of racial discrimination to an independent Civil Rights Monitor selected by the Justice Department.
In addition, the settlements require that all Denny's corporate and franchise employees receive nondiscrimination training. The Civil Rights Monitor found that the employees at the Syracuse franchise had not received the necessary training and recommended that the restaurant develop a video-based nondiscrimination training program.
"The Civil Rights Monitor's decision sends a strong message. Corporations must be liable for the discriminatory conduct of their employees and take actions to correct it," said Elizabeth OuYang, an attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund who is representing the students involved in the incident.
Li Chiu, one of the students, said he was pleased with the findings of the investigation.
"I truly hope that the call for action will bring about noticeable improvements to the sensitivities of Denny's and its employees," Chiu said. "I hope someday I would feel like I could return to Denny's, but unfortunately I don't feel that way right now."
In a statement released after the Civil Rights Monitor's decision, John Romandetti, president of Denny's, said the company would follow the monitor's recommendations.
"We deeply regret and condemn the act of violence and treatment the Syracuse University students experienced," Romandetti said. "All of the monitor's recommendations will be followed to ensure a tragic incident like this will never occur again at any Denny's. Denny's has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind, under any circumstance."
Romandetti added that he had sent a letter of apology to each of the students.
NDI Foods, which operates the Erie Boulevard franchise where the incident occurred, did not return phone calls. Denny's Inc. recently signed an agreement to purchase all of its Denny's restaurants, Romandetti said.
Last Thursday the students filed a civil lawsuit against Denny's Inc., NDI Foods, Onondaga County, the two security guards, and the manager of the restaurant. The suit seeks damages and a clarification of Denny's policy of hiring off-duty sheriffs as security guards.
"We want to know what the procedure will be in regards to hiring sheriffs in the future," said OuYang. "That wasn't addressed by the Civil Rights Monitor, who only said that the particular guards involved not be rehired.
"There has to be a policy in place. The public perceives them to be peace officers and they are saying that they weren't trained to be that. We're concerned about that."
The guards have maintained that they were reluctant to intervene in the melee, which involved about 30 people, because they feared causing injury to themselves or others.
Instead, they said, they called police, who arrived on the scene after the attackers had already dispersed.
A group of African American students who also charge they were denied service at Denny's the night of the incident will also join in the suit, said their attorney, Thomas C. Hardsall. The African American students said they witnessed the incident. They later intervened to break up the fight.
A criminal complaint filed after the incident is still being investigated by the Onondaga County District Attorney's Office. A spokesperson for the district attorney said no arrests have been made yet in the case.
A spokesperson for the Onondaga Sheriff's Department said this week that the department had no comment on the suit. Last May, the department maintained that the security guards, who were off-duty at the time of the incident, had acted properly by not intervening in the fight.
"They saw a disturbance involving a large group of people and determined that if they had intervened it would have involved a considerable use of force which would have resulted in injuries--so they called for police backup instead," said Bob Burns, spokesman for the Onondaga Sheriff's Department, after the incident. "With a group of 25 to 30 people, you can't just yell and say 'stop.'"
By the time police arrived at the scene, the fight had already ended and the group of whites had left the scene, Burns said.
Yuya Hasegawa, a Japanese student who was beaten into unconsciousness during the assault said he was happy with the monitor's findings, but was concerned about the slow pace of the criminal investigation.
"This decision makes me feel better because I should be allowed to eat anywhere I want to," Hasegawa said. "But I'm still worried to go back to Syracuse because it is a small town and no one has been arrested yet for beating me."