Sparx Restaurant to pay $56,000 in EEOC retaliation lawsuit

MENOMONIE, Wis. (RELEASE FROM EEOC)-- A federal district court has ruled that Sparx Restaurant of Menomonie, Wis., must pay back pay and interest to a former employee who was fired in retaliation for complaining about a racist display in the workplace, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced today. Added to damages already awarded by the jury in the case, the EEOC will have recovered an aggregate of more than $56,000 for the former employee. The court also enjoined Sparx from engaging in similar conduct and required training of Sparx's owner, Chris Brekken, and other managers.

In its lawsuit, the EEOC had charged that Sparx fired Dion Miller because he complained about an offensive display in the restaurant, which included a dollar bill with a noose around George Washington's neck, and drawings of a man on horseback and a hooded figure with "KKK" written on his hood. Miller, who was a cook in the restaurant, was fired three weeks after he complained about the figure.

Following the EEOC initiating this action, Sparx Restaurant (which was incorporated as Northern Star Hospitality) closed, and subsequently, a Denny's franchise, which was incorporated as North Broadway Holdings, began operating in the same space. The EEOC amended its suit to allege that the action was against Northern Star Hospitality, North Broadway Holdings, Inc., and Northern Star Properties, LLC (which owned the property in which the restaurants operated), which were a single employer for purposes of liability and relief in this case. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court ruled for the EEOC on this issue.

A jury found in September 2013 that the defendants fired Miller in retaliation for his complaint, and that his firing had been done with malice or reckless disregard of his federally protected rights. The jury awarded Miller $15,000 in damages for emotional distress.

In an order dated Jan. 27, 2014, Judge Barbara B. Crabb rejected the defendants' motion to set aside the verdict, and awarded back pay and interest of more than $41,000. Under the court's order, the back pay and interest will be increased by 15 percent to account for increased tax liability to Miller by receiving his wage loss in a lump sum. The court also entered a three-year injunction, enjoining the defendants from: discharging employees in retaliation for complaints about racially offensive postings in their workplace; failing to adopt policies that explicitly prohibit actions made unlawful under Title VII; failing to adopt an investigative process with regard to discrimination claims; and failing to provide annual training regarding Title VII to Chris Brekken, who owns all interests in the three corporate defendants, and other managers.

"Anti-discrimination efforts would come to a standstill if employees weren't allowed to freely complain about racist and discriminatory conduct. Blatantly racist drawings in the workplace are patently offensive and give employees good cause to complain," said John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC's Chicago district. "Employers who punish employees who do complain are following a self-destructive scenario and ought not to be surprised when the EEOC shows up."

The EEOC case was litigated by Laurie Vasichek and Jessica Palmer-Denig of Minneapolis and Camille Monahan and Dennis McBride of Milwaukee. They were under the direction of Jean Kamp, associate regional attorney of the Chicago district.

The EEOC's Chicago District Office is responsible for processing discrimination charges, administrative enforcement, and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and North and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

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