Papa John’s will pay blind ex-worker $175K to settle lawsuit

Service dog barred from Athens restaurant
A Papa John’s restaurant in metro Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED

Combined ShapeCaption
A Papa John’s restaurant in metro Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED

Papa John’s has agreed to pay a blind former employee $175,000 to resolve a discrimination lawsuit after he was fired from an Athens restaurant over his need to have his service dog on site during shifts.

The Atlanta-based pizza giant notified a Georgia federal court on Monday about its settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and former worker Michael Barnes.

U.S. District Judge Tilman E. Self III immediately approved the agreement, which also calls for Papa John’s to update its policy on reasonable employee accommodations and train certain staff in regard to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Barnes, blind since 2008, was hired by Papa John’s in February 2020 to work in the dough station of its restaurant at 498 Baxter Street in Athens, case records show. Barnes had disclosed his disability and the need for his service dog, a black labrador called Indie, to guide him to and from work.

The restaurant’s manager allegedly told Barnes that Indie could be kept on the premises, out of customer view and away from food preparation activities, during his shifts. They allegedly discussed keeping Indie secured or crated in the restaurant’s conference room or under the manager’s desk.

Barnes’s employment was briefly delayed by the pandemic, and he was told in May 2020 that he could start work, case filings show. The following month, Papa John’s denied Barnes’s request to have Indie remain at the restaurant during his shifts, despite the manager’s repeated assurances that it wouldn’t be a problem.

Barnes was subsequently fired from Papa John’s, which prompted the EEOC to file a lawsuit.

Papa John’s USA Inc. and Papa John’s International Inc. were accused in a March 2023 complaint of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act by denying Barnes’ reasonable accommodation and terminating his employment due to his disability. Barnes successfully sought to intervene in the EEOC’s case as an additional plaintiff.

The EEOC claimed that Papa John’s deemed Indie to be an unspecified health and safety risk. It alleged Papa John’s never identified any code, law or regulation prohibiting Barnes’s request for Indie to remain at the restaurant during his shifts.

Papa John’s failed to properly evaluate Barnes’s request and rejected it “based on improper stereotypes about service animals and their presence in restaurants or other food service establishments,” the EEOC alleged.

Papa John’s denied the allegations.

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