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Judge dismisses most racial discrimination allegations against Baltimore’s Atlas Restaurant Group but lets lawsuit proceed

A U.S. District Court judge has dismissed most counts in a discrimination lawsuit against Baltimore’s Atlas Restaurant Group but is allowing the case to proceed, saying a complaint from a Black mother and her son “gives rise to reasonable inference” that they were denied service at a Harbor East restaurant based on race.

Last year Marcia Grant, a real estate agent, and her 9-year-old son, Dallas, attempted to dine at Ouzo Bay (pictured) restaurant. What happened next is the subject of litigation.
Last year Marcia Grant, a real estate agent, and her 9-year-old son, Dallas, attempted to dine at Ouzo Bay (pictured) restaurant. What happened next is the subject of litigation. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Lawyers for Atlas called Judge George L. Russell III’s ruling this month a legal victory. Lennon Edwards, an attorney for the plaintiffs, declined to comment on the ruling.

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The complaint stemmed from an incident last summer, when Marcia Grant, a real estate agent, and her 9-year-old son, Dallas, attempted to dine at Ouzo Bay restaurant, which Atlas owns.

In footage Grant filmed at the scene and shared to social media that has been viewed millions of times, a manager informs her that Dallas’ athletic shorts violate the restaurant’s dress code. However, Grant’s video shows a white child who she points out is wearing similar clothing nearby.

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The incident prompted protests, calls for a boycott and a Baltimore City Council resolution. Atlas fired two managers involved with the incident and owner Alex Smith apologized. The restaurant group abolished its dress code for children and modified or abandoned dress codes at various establishments in the city.

Last July, Grant filed a lawsuit seeking around $150,000 in damages for each of multiple counts. In an amended complaint filed in November, she alleged that the restaurant group had discriminated against her and her son because of their race and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on them. She maintained that she and her son “have suffered and will continue to suffer severe and extreme emotional distress” because of the incident. Additionally, she alleged that Atlas had violated Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in denying them service.

She is represented locally by attorney Joseph E. Spicer of Baltimore’s Cohen Harris LLC.

Attorneys for Atlas asked a judge to dismiss the suit on the grounds that Grant’s allegations did not support “a reasonable inference that Ouzo Bay’s denial of service was racially motivated.”

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“The Court disagrees,” according to Russell, who wrote that Grant’s complaint “gives rise to a reasonable inference that, but for Plaintiffs’ race, they would not have been denied service.”

But Russell sided with Atlas elsewhere, dismissing three of four counts in Grant’s suit. While Grant had alleged the intentional infliction of emotional distress, her complaint didn’t provide any details about their injuries, Russell wrote, “including whether they sought medical treatment after the incident or whether the distress manifested psychologically or physically.” Additionally, the plaintiff’s claim didn’t provide enough information to show that the restaurant group’s conduct was “intentional or reckless” or “extreme and outrageous.”

Russell also dismissed Grant’s claim that Atlas had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the grounds that she hadn’t provided “written notice to the appropriate state or local authority as required” by law.

Following the lawsuit, Atlas said that it had taken a number of steps to address the incident, including retraining staff and forming a corporate social responsibility board.

In a statement, Atlas’s attorney Scott Marder said: “Atlas Restaurant Group is pleased with the decision ... The company firmly believes this incident arose out of a poor managerial decision, not racial discrimination. Regarding the single count that the court allowed to stand, Atlas looks forward to presenting its side of what took place and vigorously defending itself.”

The Baltimore Sun last year detailed a series of allegations from current and former Atlas employees and patrons of racial discrimination ranging from dress codes that were enforced by race to the refusal to carry certain alcohol brands favored by Black patrons.

When asked for additional comment, Atlas’ director of marketing and public relations, Joe Sweeney, responded: “Due to the ongoing litigation, we have nothing further to add.”

On Wednesday, lawyers for Atlas filed a response to Russell’s opinion, again asking the court dismiss the case.

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