The just-settled discrimination lawsuit by 24 African Americans against one of West Hollywood's trendiest spots for an apple martini sprouted almost by coincidence.
Week by week, colleagues, neighbors and acquaintances learned by word of mouth and over the Internet that they had had similar experiences at Lola's Restaurant.
E-mail claiming discrimination at Lola's and warning black people not to frequent the restaurant flew from California to New York and back again, wending its way from friend to friend until it landed where it began--on Nedra Jenkins' computer.
The lawsuit, which was settled Wednesday under confidential terms that included a statement of regret by the restaurant, had its roots in a Friday in November 1999.
Jenkins, a senior deputy attorney for Los Angeles County, said Lola's canceled the 30th birthday celebration she'd planned for 50 friends. Jenkins, who made arrangements over the telephone, believed the restaurant scuttled the reservation after she stopped by and employees realized that she is black. Lola's attorney, Dale B. Goldfarb, said Jenkins never paid a deposit and had no formal promise from the restaurant to accommodate her.
Jenkins said she stewed over her humiliation that weekend, and on Monday morning Jenkins decided to take action against the nightspot.
"When it happened on my birthday, I was horrified. I had friends in from out of town and I just did my best to get through the weekend," she said Thursday at a Beverly Hills news conference in the offices of the plaintiffs' attorney, Carl E. Douglas.
First, Jenkins reported the incident to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control; her plan was to demand that Lola's liquor license be revoked. Then a friend mentioned reading an e-mail citing other African Americans who said they, too, had been arbitrarily refused entry to Lola's. Jenkins found the e-mail, saw that it included the names of two other people with complaints about Lola's and contacted them. In one case she didn't have to go far--Kelli Gillam lived in the same apartment building.
"It was like nine degrees of separation," she said. "When I realized that this was a pattern and a practice, that's when I decided to file suit."
Gillam, an accountant, became a plaintiff in the case, as did a client of hers who had also been refused entry to Lola's the same day as she was.
Gillam, who was not at Thursday's news conference, had been refused entry on the grounds that she needed a dinner reservation to have a drink in the bar, Douglas said. When she saw the white friend she was to meet waiting for her in the bar, she was permitted inside--but only to explain to her friend that she could not remain there, Douglas said. Minutes later, Gillam's client, Darren Lee, arrived to drop off his taxes--and was also refused entrance, Lee said.
"The doorman looked at me and said: 'I can't let you in.'" Lee said. "While I was standing there he let in four other white people. I told him that I didn't even plan on staying, I just wanted to go in and drop something off. He said, 'I can't let you in. Period.'"
Jenkins and the other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in March 2000, claiming the restaurant had violated the state's civil rights law, but a mistrial was declared in October 2001 after a 3 1/2-week trial. Jurors, who deliberated for 12 days, failed to reach a verdict on 70 of the 72 allegations but ruled against Jenkins' case.
Another trial was set for August but the restaurant's owner decided it was cheaper to settle than go to trial again.
"We don't believe there was ever discrimination at Lola's, and everyone admitted there was always a completely mixed crowd at the restaurant," Goldfarb said, adding that 17 of the 24 plaintiffs had been to Lola's on previous occasions and had no problem entering. "Settling was just a matter of saving money for us. We agreed to tell them we regret any inconvenience, which we always do if anyone is inconvenienced."
A dozen plaintiffs filed the lawsuit; the resulting publicity drew another dozen plaintiffs before the trial began.
Among the new plaintiffs were Nequetta Thompson and Kathy Ward, who work for Pacific Bell. They claimed they went with 17 co-workers of various races to Lola's after work in September 1999, and were refused entry because they did not have reservations--even though their white, Latino and Asian colleagues were admitted. Goldfarb said that if anyone was refused entrance, it was because the restaurant was full or they were inappropriately dressed.