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Sam Covelli, Panera Bread Franchisee, Allegedly Didn't Want Black Employees In Public View

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PITTSBURGH -- An Ohio franchisee who runs several western Pennsylvania Panera Bread stores 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 in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia, where Covelli operates Panera stores.

Vines sued claiming he was denied promotions and made to work in the kitchen because company owner Sam Covelli didn't want black employees in areas 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's 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.

"Covelli maintains that is it an equal opportunity employer that does not discriminate, nor has it ever discriminated, in its employment decisions," the settlement said, and Covelli has pledged not to discriminate in the future.

The litigation against Covelli didn't begin with Vines' lawsuit, but rather 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, prompting Covelli to release a statement which called both lawsuits "completely unfounded" and "a coordinated attempt by two disgruntled former employees to discredit the company for a profit motive."

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. The terms weren't disclosed.

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