National Airport restaurant accused of anti-gay bias

ABOVEGeorge Curtis claims he was harassed, threatened with assault, demoted, and later fired by the Good Stuff Eatery in National Airport. (Photo courtesy Curtis)

A gay former manager at the Good Stuff Eatery restaurant at Reagan National Airport charges in a discrimination complaint that he was harassed, threatened with assault, demoted, and later fired by the restaurant’s district manager because of his sexual orientation, race, and status as a “nonconforming” male.

George Curtis, 29, of Oxon Hill, Md., told the Washington Blade the alleged harassment and discriminatory action took place in December 2017 before and after he raised concerns with management about broken equipment and a crumbling wall in the restaurant’s kitchen next to a food table that he considered to be unsanitary.

Curtis, who filed the complaint Feb. 14, 2018 with the Arlington County Office of Human Rights, said he believes the demotion and firing were also in retaliation for his decision to file a separate complaint with the Arlington County Health Department about the alleged unsanitary conditions in the kitchen after he said management refused to correct the kitchen matter.

“I experienced harassment because [of my] sex (male, non-conforming) and my sexual orientation by my manager and other staff who made comments about me, including ‘his gay ass doesn’t do anything,’ calling me ‘princess’ and ‘prima donna,’ saying ‘don’t break a nail’ and my District Manager saying ‘you cannot be pretty all the time, you have to get your hands dirty,’” Curtis states in his complaint.

“On Dec. 22, 2017, my manager threatened to ‘cut my fucking tongue out’ because he thought I was recording our meetings,” Curtis’s complaint states.

The complaint says Curtis was informed that he was terminated for disorderly conduct and improper behavior. He told the Blade that management informed him the demotion and firing were also related to repeated instances in which he showed up late for work.

“I believe this was a pretextual reason to remove me from my job because I complained about harassment and poor working conditions,” Curtis states in the complaint.

He told the Blade the dates and times for which he was accused of showing up late for work had been approved in advance by management as leave time after he requested the leave to care for his mother who had been hospitalized at the time.

His discrimination complaint filed with the Arlington Office of Human Rights names as the accused party a company called Outstanding Hospitality Management LLC, which owns the franchise rights to the Good Stuff Eatery restaurant at Reagan Airport.

Milan Patel, Outstanding Hospitality Management’s president, told the Washington Blade in a telephone interview on July 16 that his company investigated Curtis’s allegations and determined they could not be substantiated.

“The investigation revealed in no uncertain terms that Mr. Curtis’s claims are without merit and that he was terminated just for cause and not for any discriminatory reason,” Patel said.

Patel added that Curtis’s allegations “will be opposed with witness evidence as well as witness testimony in any courts or administrative proceedings if we need to. In fact, such evidence has already been provided to the Arlington County, Va., Office of Human Rights.”

Kyle Epting, an Arlington attorney representing Sunnyside Restaurant Group, a family-owned company that created the Good Stuff Eatery restaurant franchise chain, said that under legal agreements between the Sunnyside Restaurant Group and Outstanding Hospitality Management LLC, Outstanding Hospitality Management has full control over the operations of the Good Stuff Eatery at Reagan Airport and it, rather than Sunnyside, bears full responsibility for the actions of that restaurant.

“We have always embraced diversity in our company and our lives believing that people from all backgrounds enhance our family, customers, and staff,” said Micheline Mendelsohn, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Sunnyside Restaurant Group, in a statement to the Blade.

“We were very saddened to hear of the allegations of an employee regarding his employment at the Good Stuff Eatery airport location operated by one of our franchisees,” she said. “We have taken these allegations very seriously and moved quickly to ensure that the franchisee was handling the matter, and operating their store and employees in the spirit of our family beliefs,” Mendelsohn told the Blade in her statement.

“And it is our understanding that OHM conducted an internal investigation and found the complaints to be unsubstantiated,” she said.

D.C. attorney George Gilliard, who is representing Curtis, said he believes based on existing case law that all of the companies associated with the Good Stuff Eatery restaurant at Reagan National Airport, including Sunnyside Restaurant Group, could be held in some way responsible for the alleged discriminatory action against Curtis.

He said that he is considering filing a lawsuit on Curtis’s behalf to seek compensation for Curtis’s firing and the alleged harassment and threats he says he encountered at the Good Stuff Eatery.

“The Mendelsohns’ attorney Kyle Epting likely believes that without the Mendelsohns’ control over the day-to-day operations at the Reagan Good Stuff Eatery, no lawsuit lies against the Mendelsohns’ companies,” Gilliard said, adding, “I disagree.”

Gilliard cited past court cases involving the McDonald’s restaurant franchise chain and Dunkin Donuts in which the U.S. National Labor Relations Board under certain circumstances held McDonald’s responsible for actions by one of its franchisees. He said a court held Dunkin Donuts responsible for action by one of its franchisees.

A document from the Arlington County Health Department that Gilliard sent to the Blade confirms that a complaint about alleged unsanitary conditions at the Good Stuff Eatery at Reagan Airport was filed at the time Curtis said he filed it. A Health Department official states in the document that the restaurant was cited for a violation after a health inspector visited the establishment. It says the violation was subsequently corrected.

Gilliard said should he file a lawsuit on Curtis’s behalf it would likely, among other things, charge that the restaurant violated state and federal laws protecting whistleblowers from retaliation on matters such as a health violation.

He said the alleged threat by the manager to assault Curtis would constitute a civil assault and potentially a criminal assault under Virginia law, and that issue would also be raised in a possible lawsuit.

The manager named in the complaint couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Gilliard sent letters to the two companies offering to settle the disputes if the companies provided Curtis with a monetary compensation package, but so far they have not responded to that offer, he told the Blade. However, according to Gilliard, the attorney representing OHM LLC told him he believed Curtis was “lying” about the allegations he made in his complaint.

Curtis said he was first hired by OHM LLC at the Reagan Airport Good Stuff Eatery in March 2017 as a manager/shift leader. He said he was demoted in December to the position of cashier.

He provided the Blade a copy of an “OHM Do Good Award” he received in October 2017 “for going over and above to serve the DCA team,” a development that Curtis and his lawyer say discredits the claims by the restaurant’s management that he was demoted and fired for cause.

The award states, “George truly goes the extra mile to make sure that our guests are very well taken care of and also helps the elderly people and families with small children to their gates and [is] overall a great team player. This brings great credit to himself, the Reagan team, and OHM Concession Group.”

The award, printed in the form of a certificate, is signed by Milan Patel, the OHM president and CEO.

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