A discrimination case filed against corporate coffee chain Dunkin' Donuts has been amended to include three New Jersey plaintiffs, all of whom claim they were treated unfairly by the company because of their race or gender.
Louis Tambaro and Jerry Marks, of the Red Bank law firm Marks & Klein, LLP, are representing Priti Shetty, of Montville, and Reggie Pretto and Amy Pretto, a husband and wife from Montclair. The firm was originally representing just Shetty in the case, but the lawsuit was amended to include the Prettos and filed with the state Superior Court in Middlesex County on Monday.
According to Tambaro, the Prettos, who are African American, had signed a franchise agreement with the company in 2006 and requested to open a store in the greater New York area.
"Ultimately, they were strongly suggested to open a store in Bowie, Md.," Tambaro said. "The area was not thriving, to say the least."
The Prettos' store was unsuccessful and the couple eventually declared bankruptcy after losing about $750,000, Tambaro said. Tambaro said the Prettos feel that they were discriminated against because of their race and therefore not allowed to open a Dunkin' Donuts store in New York, where they originally wanted to.
Further, Tambaro said a small percentage of stores in the Dunkin' Donuts franchise system are owned by African Americans and almost no Dunkin' Donuts stores in New York are owned by African Americans.
"In addition to the money damages, we’re seeking a declaration that Dunkin' has discriminated against these individuals based upon race or gender," Tambaro said.
Shetty, 45, said she feels she was discriminated against by an area manager because she is a woman of Indian descent. Shetty said she had opened two stores in 2006–one in Wantage and another in Oak Ridge. She claims the area manager would visit the stores and harass her, commenting that she is "not servile enough" for a woman. She would often argue with the manager, she said.
"I'm a woman from Indian origin. I was smart enough to stand up for myself, which he didn’t like," she said.
Michelle King, a spokesperson for Dunkin' Donuts, based out of Canton, Mass., said the company denies the allegations and is proud of its ethnic diversity.
"We categorically deny the allegations made in the lawsuit filed in New Jersey Superior Court and will quickly move to have the claims dismissed," King said. "Dunkin' Donuts is comprised of a racially diverse body of franchisees, and we are very proud of that diversity. We are equally as proud of having a strong relationship with our franchisees. To maintain that relationship, we work closely with our franchisees through our operating and marketing field teams and through our Franchisee Advisory Council system.
"We believe the fact that more than 90 percent of new Dunkin' Donuts store growth in the U.S. comes from existing franchisees is proof of the strength of our relationship and of our franchisees' confidence in the brand. While we cannot comment further as to the specific allegations made in the lawsuit, our franchisee diversity and our franchisee relationships are a source of pride for us and a strength within our system."
Shetty said she was not permitted to open a third store in Stockholm because it did not have a drive-thru window. However, after she sold her stores to a Caucasian male, Shetty said the new owner was immediately permitted to open a store in the same location. Within six months, though, the new owner was unsuccessful in the business and abandoned all three locations, she said. Shetty had attempted to re-enter the franchise agreement with the corporation, but was no longer permitted and said she was notified by the company that she was not a good owner.
"The actual refusal to let her back into the system was a higher-up decision," Tambaro said.
Shetty also alleged that she was discriminated against for being a woman when the area manager would force her to be in the store for inspections and visits knowing that she had a child to care for at home. While the alleged discrimination was from one manager, Shetty said she had attempted to reach out to the corporate managers for support.
"I have spoken to his boss and I have made Dunkin' aware of what is going on. I never got any help," she said.
While the Prettos are not still financially tied to their stores, Shetty is locked into a 10-year lease agreement on both the Wantage and Oak Ridge establishments. She said the expiration on both will be in 2014. She decided to move forward with the lawsuit not only to possibly receive compensation from the company for the thousands of dollars she said she lost as a result of the "harassment," but also because she feels she was not treated fairly by the corporate managers.
"Right now, it's not my place to go after [the area manager]. The only thing I can do is make corporate responsible for him because I signed a contract with them, not with that gentleman," she said.
Dunkin' Donuts will have 35 days since the amended complaint was filed to either accept or move to dismiss the claims. Tambaro said the lawsuit has been endorsed by several civil rights organizations throughout New Jersey, including the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.