Last week, on February 20, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against a Golden Corral restaurant near Detroit, Michigan. The complaint alleges that the restaurant discriminated against a family with three daughters who have epidermolysis bullosa.
According to the Department of Justice’s complaint, the mother, Danielle Duford, and her four daughters went to the Golden Corral restaurant, paid for their buffet, and, shortly after they were seated, the manager, David Robinson, approached their table and asked the mom, “What is wrong with your baby?”
Now, usually when dealing with “drive by” questions about our own family’s skin disorder, we can get a pretty good sense of how (badly) the conversation is going to go by the way it starts. So we know that “What’s wrong with your baby” is probably one of the harsher ways to start that conversation. It’s certainly a question Jennifer and I have fielded several times, and my own reaction to being asked “What’s wrong with your hands?” has changed throughout my life.
In any event, according to the lawsuit, when the mom explained that her baby had epidermolysis bullosa and that there was nothing “wrong” with her, the manager replied, “she has scabs all over, so obviously there is something wrong with her” and further asserted that the restaurant had “a right to ask what’s wrong if it concerns our customers and is contagious.”
Even though the mom again told the manager that EB is not contagious, the manger immediately told her to leave and “go find somewhere else to eat” because their presence was apparently making other customers “uncomfortable.” The family left (very upset), but not before one of their friends who was planning on joining them for dinner arrived and began complaining about what just happened. The manager attempted to eject him, too, and called the police when he refused to leave. (The police didn’t make any arrests.)
Barbara L. McQuade, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said in her press release about the filing of the lawsuit, “The promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act is that disabled citizens should have full access to public life. We hope that this lawsuit will assist in expanding people’s understanding of the range of disabilities and the obligations to treat all disabled citizens fairly under the law.”
Under the Americans With Disability Act, public accommodations such as restaurants cannot discriminate against people with disabilities or people they perceive to have disabilities.
Epidermolysis bullosa, like ichthyosis, has varying levels of severity from family-to-family. And like ichthyosis, the most severe cases of EB are the ones that have drawn the most publicity. DebRA, the Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa Research Association of America, provides support and information about EB (and funds research), very similar to what FIRST does with and for ichthyosis. Two of our boys are friends with several children with EB, who attended Camp Wonder with them. Debra’s “Understanding EB” page is an excellent starting point for people looking to learn more about EB.
Here are a couple legal-related musings:
(1) The incident that prompted the lawsuit occurred in May 2011 and was filed by the Department of Justice (and not the affected family). So this lawsuit has a lot more weight than a private lawyer out for a quick settlement on a “hot coffee” lawsuit. It’s also reasonable to assume that as part of the investigation-and-complaint process, the Department of Justice contacted the restaurant and attempted to resolve the issue before filing a lawsuit. One can infer from the filing of the complaint and the issuance of the press release that the parties were unable to resolve things outside of the court system.
(2) Golden Corral is a franchise restaurant, and the lawsuit was filed against the individual company that runs the Golden Corral restaurant in Westland, Michigan, and its two owners of that company. It’s unclear how much influence (if any) the Golden Corral franchisor has with its individual franchisees and lawsuits in general, or this lawsuit in particular, so so advocacy efforts, such as a boycott targeted at Golden Corral in general, might not accomplish a lot. It is pretty unlikely that this sort of behavior is a franchise policy and much more likely that it’s an individual store or chain of stores with the same owner where the problem exists.
This story has been picked up by the Huffington Post and elsewhere on the net. A few months ago, I tilted at windmills when writing about (and attempting to respond to) knuckleheaded comments about harlequin ichthyosis on Facebook. Many of the comments to the stories I linked above are enough to cause me shake my head and wonder. (There’s some pretty nasty stuff in there.) Right now, I don’t have the energy to wade into any of that.
In any event, seeing as how I appear to be uniquely situated to provide color commentary on this lawsuit (given that whole lawyer thing), I’ll be following it and will blog about it as opportunities arise.
UPDATE 2/27/13: I have written up some quick thoughts about the underlying law.
UPDATE 5/8/13: The lawsuit has settled.