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Jury finds in favor of Thomas Keller, The French Laundry in discrimination case

A Napa jury’s finding June 26 that Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, operators of the Yountville-based The French Laundry restaurant, did not discriminate against a former female employee isn’t a surprise, says one legal expert.

Juan Madera, a professor at the University of Houston College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, said discrimination cases often rely on circumstantial evidence. To defend against the charge, the defendants only need to prove a plausible, alternative explanation for the alleged discrimination, Madera added.

The jury looked into the claims against the company headed by celebrity chef Thomas Keller. Plaintiff Vanessa Scott-Allen alleged gender, sex, and pregnancy discrimination, intentional misrepresentation, concealment, and solicitation of an employee by misrepresentation, according to the redacted jury form.

While ruling against her in those claims, the jurors did not make findings on the claim of failure to prevent discrimination or whether the defendants acted with malice, oppression, or fraud or if they engaged in a conspiracy.

“Thomas Keller and The French Laundry are pleased the jury has reached the conclusion that there was no wrongdoing on our part in the pregnancy discrimination case brought by Vannessa Scott-Allen,” The French Laundry wrote in an emailed statement. “We are and always have been supportive of women and their families. We are disappointed to see lawyers seeking an exorbitant sum for erroneous claims, and believe that these types of frivolous cases do a disservice to the very cause they are meant to further. This has been a trying ordeal for all of us and we are appreciative that it has come to the right conclusion. We wish to thank everyone who supported us in this process.”

Scott-Allen worked as a “captain,” the highest level service position at Per Se, another Keller property in New York, before visiting the French Laundry and completing a transfer request, agreeing to a start date there, according to trial briefs filed by plaintiff’s lawyers.

Scott-Allen alleged the management team at the French Laundry found out about her pregnancy after they offered her the job and took steps to rescind the offer, including a second interview with management at the French Laundry intended to stymie the transfer.

The brief also said management deceived her into resigning from her well compensated position at Per Se, leaving her without a job or health insurance after moving cross country while pregnant.

Madera, the professor, said the restaurant industry reflects overall trends in other industries when it comes to discrimination cases, with the most common complaint being race-based followed by gender-based discrimination.

He emphasized the difficulty in gathering hard evidence in discrimination cases.

“It is so rare that someone would have direct explicit evidence,” he said. “Usually the difficult part for the plaintiff’s legal team is to paint the picture that this has been happening and it’s part of the culture.”

Discrimination is underreported in the restaurant industry in general, Madera also noted.

“Our research shows that most people who experience discrimination never bring it up,” he said. “What makes the media and gets filed in courts is just the surface of the iceberg.”

Many cases like this often settle out of court for much smaller sums than the roughly $1 million Scott Allen and her team sought, Madera said.

“Regardless of whether you have enough evidence to defend yourself as a defendant it’s cheaper and faster to settle out of court,” Madera said, placing the average settlement at around $5,000.

That is what happened in a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by two female servers against Napa County-based celebrity chef Michael Chiarello

The Business Journal previously reported that according to court documents Chiarello and his restaurant companies settled after a trial date had been set for July 17, 2017.

But facing $1 million dollars in damages Keller’s team chose not to settle and prevailed against a legal strategy much like the one outlined by Madera in these types of cases.

Part of the plaintiff’s lawyers strategy at trial was to paint a picture of a conspiracy against their client as well as a culture that would give rise to discrimination.

The witnesses who testified during the approximately three week trial included Thomas Keller himself as well as the manager of the French Laundry Michael Minnillo. Plaintiff’s lawyers grilled them to try and show they acted in concert against Scott-Allen according to Sami Khadder of the Khadder Law Firm who was part of the plaintiff’s team that represented her.

Speaking prior to the verdict, Khadder described Minnillo as “the main culprit” in the alleged scheme to back out of the job offer Keller’s restaurant group made to Scott-Allen.

Khadder described Minillo’s testimony as crucial alongside that of Julie Secviar, the company’s human resources director who Khadder described as complicit in a conspiracy to defraud his client.

Keller’s legal team, which did not respond to emailed requests for comment, described the episode as a misunderstanding and not discrimination according to Khadder.

Khadder noted that Keller was not involved in the underlying discrimination but said “The primary reason he is a defendant is because we alleged ... that he is central to an integrated enterprise between all of his entities.” He added: “He not only allowed this culture of discrimination to occur but he ratified this conduct toward Mrs. Scott-Allen.”

Khadder’s team used an expert witness to estimate Scott-Allen’s lost wages at around $1 million while an opposing witness for Keller’s group placed that number closer to $13,000.

Asked after the verdict in a text message if his side plans to appeal, Khadder said, “Absolutely.”

Staff Writer Chase DiFeliciantonio covers technology, banking, law, accounting, and the cannabis industry. Reach him at chase.d@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.

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