Panera franchisee settles lawsuit by black worker

PITTSBURGH — A Panera Bread franchisee who runs stores in Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia has agreed to pay more than $76,000 to settle discrimination claims by current and former black employees.

Chief U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster on Monday told attorneys for Guy Vines, the black worker, and the company he sued in January, Warren, Ohio-based Covelli Enterprises, to advertise the settlement in newspapers where Covelli operates Panera stores. Those locations include one Kentucky store in Ashland, according to Covelli's Web site.

Vines sued claiming he was denied promotions and made to work in the kitchen because company owner Sam Covelli didn't want black employees where the public was served. About 200 to 300 black workers may be entitled to money, Vines' attorney Samuel Cordes told the judge.

According to online court records, Vines will receive $10,000 for being the lead plaintiff and Cordes will receive $66,000 in legal fees. In addition, Covelli must pay a yet-to-be determined amount based on how many current and former employees respond to the advertisements and file claims.

Those workers will get 70 cents an hour for each hour they worked in excess of one year at any of Covelli's Panera stores. That's based upon how much money Covelli's workers stood to gain had they been promoted after their first year.

The settlement covers all current or former black employees who worked for Covelli for at least a year between Jan. 11, 2008 and Jan. 11, 2012 — the day Vines filed his lawsuit. Vines contends he was hired in November 2009 and quit in August 2011 over his alleged mistreatment.

Cordes and Covelli's attorney, Brad Funari, declined to comment after the hearing.

Covelli continues to deny wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

The litigation against Covelli began with one filed by a white man, Scott Donatelli, who was fired as manager of Covelli's store in the upscale Pittsburgh suburb of Mount Lebanon in September 2011. The company claimed in court papers that Donatelli violated policies pertaining to medical leave, though Donatelli's lawsuit alleged he was fired for refusing to stop giving cash register duties to Vines, who was not identified by name in Donatelli's suit.

Donatelli claimed a district manager reprimanded him and said Covelli would "(expletive) if he got a look at 'that'" — referring to Vines working anywhere customers could see him.

Vines was identified as the employee in question when he sued in January.

Cordes, who represented both men, said in Vines' lawsuit that "African Americans were routinely assigned to jobs either in the back of the store washing dishes or doing food preparation so customers would not see them" and that top Covelli managers dictated that "people who are 'black, fat, and/or ugly' should never be permitted to work the cash registers."

Donatelli's lawsuit settled earlier this year.