Discrimination suit filed against Equinox Hotel owners

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MANCHESTER — A former employee of the Equinox Hotel is suing the resort's ownership entity over alleged discrimination based on his national origin, race and his Jamaican accent.

Everton Brownie, of Manchester, contends in a suit filed initially in Bennington Superior Court Civil Division that during his employment at the hotel he was rejected for the front desk position he sought in part because of his accent.

The suit was filed in December on Brownie's behalf by attorney Stefan Ricci, of Ricci Law, of Windsor. It states that the plaintiff worked at the hotel from August 2014 to April 2017, and that Brownie, who is black and a native of Jamaica, indicated when he applied for a job "that he wanted a position as a front desk attendant."

Late last month, the suit was removed to U.S. District Court in Burlington because it involves alleged discrimination based on national origin under the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act. It now is before Judge William Sessions III.

Sought front desk post

According to the suit, Brownie was assigned as an operator for the resort's PBX (Private Branch Exchange) telephone system, but he was told by the front office manager that "she needed him to start working on the hotel customer service phone lines as a PBX operator before she could consider him for a front desk position."

Front desk attendants, according to the suit, "have more opportunity for advancement, are held in higher regard, and have a greater salary range that PBX operators," according to the suit.

The suit contends that Brownie's performance as a PBX operator "was very good to excellent. He became familiar with the booking system and could effectively communicate with guests. His Jamaican accent did not affect his ability to do his job."

In spring 2015, Brownie states, he asked the front office manager to consider him for a front desk attendant and was told there were no available positions, and it was recommended that he train as a bellman and continue working shifts as an operator.

He "reluctantly agreed in the hope he would eventually be transferred to the front desk," the suit states, adding that from April 2015 to Jan. 1, 2016, Brownie "regularly inquired" about a front desk job.

According to the suit, Brownie met with the manager on Jan. 2 and reiterated his desire to obtain a front desk position.

The manager "responded that she would not offer him a front desk position and said the reason was his accent," the suit suits. "She said guests at the front desk were going to have to ask him to repeat himself over and over. She said, `the Equinox is a luxury hotel, and that means luxury in every way,' and that because of his accent, she could not put him on the front desk."

The suit states that Brownie had "a strong reaction to this blatant discrimination and because visibly upset. His accent was never in the past mentioned as a problem. He had never heard that guests had trouble communicating with him over the phone or in person. None of his supervisors and no one he worked with had ever suggested his accent was a problem."

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Brownie "angrily confronted" the manager over the reasons for not moving him to the front desk, according to the suit, and was "subsequently issued a written disciplinary warning."

The suit also contends that Brownie informed co-workers of the confrontation with the manager and learned from a bellman that the manager had said to him "that she would never offer plaintiff a position at the front desk, and said the reason was his accent."

The suit further states that, after learning of Brownie's conversations about the situation with co-workers, the manager, "in an effort to conceal her actions," nominated him for employee of the month in January 2016, and "subsequently stated that she never found plaintiff's accent to be a problem, nor did it make it difficult to understand him."

Brownie said his employment at the hotel "ended in April 2017 for unrelated reasons."

Asked to comment about the suit after the original filing, Ricci said it is his policy not to comment on a pending suit. He could not be reached Friday about the current status of the action.

The hotel ownership is represented by J. Patrick Kennedy, of Seyfarth Shaw, of Boston. He could not be reached Friday but filed a response to the allegations in U.S. District Court. That denies the suit allegations.

The filing also argues that the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; that the plaintiff's claims are in whole or part barred by a statute limitations; that compensatory damages may be limited to the extent Brownie "has not made a reasonable effort to mitigate such damages;" that "defendant has engaged in good faith efforts to comply with [anti-discrimination laws]; and that Brownie is barred from seeking punitive damages "because defendant's alleged or actual conduct does not rise to the level necessary to sustain punitive damages award or instruction."

Kennedy also seeks to have Brownie's complaint dismissed with prejudice and a judgment entered on behalf of the defendant.

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages from the defendant and attorney costs and fees.

It alleges discrimination on the basis of national origin and race and contends Brownie suffered "emotional stress, loss of income, humiliation, and economic insecurity."

The defendant is listed Merritt Hospitality, LLC, doing business as Equinox Hotel.

Two other corporate entities were originally named in the suit, but those allegations were voluntarily dismissed after a stipulation agreed to by both parties, saying that neither entity employed Brownie during the relevant time period.

The historic hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places. A Manchester Journal article in November reported that there were a total of 199 rooms (147 in the hotel and others in freestanding inns) and as many as 250 employees during peak season.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien     


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