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More saying Denny's discriminates

Charles Kilpatrick and her family had just come from a graduation at a school for the handicapped last month when they decided to have dinner at a Denny's restaurant in east Hillsborough County.

According to a group of Washington, D.C., lawyers, the Tampa family's celebratory dinner was spoiled by racial discrimination.

Kilpatrick and her family, who are black, had to wait 20 to 30 minutes to be seated while white patrons who arrived later were seated and served first, said attorney Neal E. Kravitz.

Kilpatrick's sworn affidavit about the incident was among several filed Wednesday to support claims that Denny's has continued to discriminate against black patrons, despite an April settlement with the U.S. Justice Department in which Denny's agreed to halt such practices.

Joe Medlin, general manager of the Denny's at 5603 E Hillsborough Ave., said Wednesday night that he had not heard of the Kilpatrick's situation until the media started calling.

"To the best of my knowledge, we don't discriminate," Medlin said. "I won't put up with it."

The Kilpatrick family, reached at home Wednesday, declined to comment.

At a news conference in Washington, D.C., Kravitz's group, Washington Lawyers for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said Wednesday they have learned of at least 10 other incidents in five states in which black Denny's customers, including a federal judge, said they received prejudicial treatment.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt of Houston and his wife, Veola Hoyt, stopped at a Denny's in Yreka, Calif., a year ago and were forced to wait an inordinate length of time for service, according to federal court papers filed in California.

Four white youths who came in after them were served long before them, according to Veola Hoyt's statement. The youths were loud and rowdy, she said, and even used the word "n-----" in their conversation, but were treated well by their waitress.

Denny's has been at the center of a debate about discrimination in public facilities since it was revealed last month that six black Secret Service agents were refused service at a Denny's in Annapolis, Md., while 14 white agents with whom they entered the restaurant were served quickly.

That incident occurred April 1, the same day a federal court in California settled a federal discrimination suit against Denny's by ordering the restaurant chain to stop discriminatory practices. Denny's has maintained that a backup in the kitchen, not intentionally poor service, was at fault in the agents' case.

The problem, whatever it is, appears to be persistent at the Denny's in Annapolis, said John Relman of the Washington Lawyers Committee, which is representing the Secret Service officers.

Two blacks told Relman they got discriminatory treatment at the Denny's in Annapolis, and a white woman said she saw a black couple at that restaurant being passed over for seating numerous times while whites were seated.

Statements on those three incidents and five others alleging discrimination since April 1 were filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. They support a private class-action lawsuit against Denny's by 32 black plaintiffs.

Lawyers for Denny's have asked the judge to throw out the claim, saying the case is moot because the restaurant chain already has agreed to several bias-correcting measures spelled out in the April 1 consent decree.

Relman said the eight incidents of alleged discrimination since April 1 suggest Denny's has not put corrective measures into effect and is violating the decree.

Acting Assistant Attorney General James P. Turner said Wednesday that the Justice Department will investigate the latest claims "and take any necessary steps to ensure that the law and consent decree are enforced."

Since the decree was signed, black patrons at Denny's restaurants in Tampa and Ocala; Greenbelt, Md.; Gaithersburg, Md.; Richmond, Va.; Shelby, N.C.; and Raleigh, N.C., have complained to lawyers about receiving slow or no service while white patrons who entered the restaurants after them were served quickly.

One statement was from Waltraud Heidi Ponton, 54, a white woman married to a black man. The couple, who run a cleaning business, lives in Woodbridge, Va.

She said they waited 20 minutes for a breakfast menu May 8 in a Denny's restaurant in Richmond, Va. A white couple who arrived later had already been served.

Officials at Denny's Spartanburg, S.C., headquarters said Wednesday they had not had a chance to review the latest complaints but "will investigate them completely and thoroughly, as we always do with customer concerns."

The statement also said Denny's is "implementing programs above and beyond those called for" in the consent decree "to assure that our commitment to equitable and fair treatment of all customers is fulfilled."

_ Material from the Washington Post, AP and Reuters was used in this report.