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Patricia Gail Price, 54; Helped Win $54-Million Settlement in Denny's Discrimination Case

June 28, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Patricia "Patty" Gail Price, an attorney who worked on a historic multimillion-dollar racial discrimination lawsuit against the Denny's restaurant chain, died June 15 of ovarian cancer at her home in San Leandro, Calif. She was 54.

The Denny's case was the highlight of a 28-year career built on working for nonprofit legal organizations that assist the poor.

"She felt it was her calling to represent people who were disenfranchised in some way," said Teresa Friend, her domestic partner of 15 years. "She did that relentlessly throughout her entire career and very effectively."

The incident that prompted the Denny's case occurred Dec. 30, 1991, when Denny's workers in San Jose requested that a group of 18 African American college and high school students pay a cover charge not required of white customers. The students belonged to an NAACP youth group and had just attended a college forum.

Price, who was working for the San Jose nonprofit Public Interest Law Firm, represented the students. She argued that Denny's managers limited the number of African American customers through such tactics as requiring them to pay in advance, telling them tables were not ready and ignoring them.

As the case grew into a nationwide class action, other attorneys were brought in to assist.

Lawyers representing Denny's denied wrongdoing; but under the terms of a 1994 settlement, the company that owns the chain agreed to pay $54 million to settle the California lawsuit and a separate action in Maryland.

In addition, the company agreed to hire an independent civil rights monitor to ensure that the company was complying with the terms of the settlement, including an agreement to train employees in racial sensitivity and allow civil rights groups to conduct spot checks for bias.

"I believe Denny's is finally doing the right thing," Price told the San Jose Mercury News in 1994. "I believe the injunctive relief that requires an independent civil rights monitor be hired is the key to changing the corporate culture at Denny's."

At the time, the settlement was hailed as the most sweeping nationwide settlement of a public accommodations case in history.

Price was born in Detroit on May 17, 1952, to Woodie and Gail Price and grew up in Denver.

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, Price was active in student government and an advocate for women's and gay rights, Friend said.

In 1977, Price graduated from the University of Denver law school. She spent the early years of her career focused on the issue of domestic violence and assisting women and children who had been its victims.

In 1988, she moved to California, where she joined a legal aid office in Solano County.

By 1991, Price was an attorney with the Public Interest Law Firm, where she worked on the Denny's case and other "impact cases" that "try to effectuate change that would help other people as well," said Amanda Ruiz, a longtime friend and former co-worker.

From 1998 to 2004, Price worked at Central California Legal Services in Merced. Over the years she was also active in the Legal Aid Assn. of California. She was working with Legal Assistance for Seniors in Oakland when she was diagnosed with cancer.

In addition to Friend, Price is survived by daughters Lindsay Price-Friend, 10, and Aimee Price-Friend, 6; and a brother, Jim Price.

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