FORT MYERS — When the Rodney Morgan family arrived at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples, they made it clear they didn't want to be served by a black waiter or one with a foreign accent.
The request, which was entered into the posh hotel's computers, is at the heart of a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by 40-year-old waiter Wadner Tranchant of East Naples, who was turned away after he began to serve the family on March 12 in the beach-side hotel's Grill restaurant.
"My client was prevented from waiting on this couple because he was black," said attorney Michael R.N. McDonnell of Naples, who represents Tranchant with Naples attorney Scott Martin Roth.
Tranchant, a U.S. citizen who is black and Haitian, had worked for the hotel for 15 years, according to McDonnell, who said the Morgans are from England.
The lawsuit was filed late Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers, but wasn't entered into the docket until Wednesday. It names as defendants the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. LLC, which does business as the Ritz-Carlton, Naples, and Edward V. Staros, its vice president and managing director.
McDonnell declined further comment, except to say he filed the lawsuit under a rarely used section of Title 42 of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, Section 1981, which involves contracts with employees and employer conduct.
Ritz-Carlton Naples spokeswoman Jorian Weiner said she could not immediately comment because the company had not seen the lawsuit. However, the hotel's parent company did issue a statement.
"The Ritz-Carlton cannot comment on pending litigation, but can say The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company does not allow discriminatory actions by employees or guests," said Vivian Deuschl, vice president of public relations for The Ritz-Carlton.
The lawsuit says that around Feb. 28, the Morgan family arrived as guests and specified their preference to not be served by "people of color" or with "foreign accents."
"As per Mr. Staros, this couple is very, very prejudice(d) and do like like (sic) ppl of color or foreign accents," the lawsuit says of the preference typed into the hotel's computer system.
“That’s not going to cause us any problem,” McDonnell said of the typo “like like” in the request, which he obtained as evidence. He said he has about nine witnesses who will testify they were told the Morgans didn’t want to be served by people of color or anyone with an accent. “The testimony is clear,” he added.
The lawsuit contends it wasn't the first such request. "Other employees of defendant Ritz also encountered similar treatment on multiple occasions," the lawsuit says.
On March 12, the lawsuit says, the defendants instructed the serving staff about the stated prejudice of the Morgan family, with their reservation for "banquette seating" through its computer notification system and by word of mouth.
Tranchant's normal duties involved serving guests, but on that day, his immediate supervisors prevented him from doing that due to the Morgans' stated preferences, the lawsuit says, calling the hotel's conduct pervasive and severe, leading a person such as Tranchant to find the work environment hostile or abusive.
As a result, the lawsuit says, he was humiliated, embarrassed, frightened, intimidated, subject to undeserved shame and suffered severe emotional stress, which is continuing and prompted him to seek medical and psychological treatment.
The lawsuit says the conduct violated Title 42 of the U.S. Civil Rights Act and was a pattern of invidious discrimination that was intentional and malicious or "done with such recklessness as to be tantamount to intentional conduct."
Section 1981, the original Civil Rights Act of 1866, made it illegal to discriminate in jobs and housing on the basis of race or color. The lawsuit alleges Tranchant was denied the enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms, and conditions of the contractual relationship under that section, which provides equal rights for everyone.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, which are meant to punish and set an example to deter similar wrongdoing.