A jury in Napa Valley cleared the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group of wrongdoing in a pregnancy discrimination trial that ended Wednesday.
The verdict exonerates the famous chef and his acclaimed restaurants — Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in California — of charges of fraud and discrimination alleged by former employee Vannessa Scott-Allen.
“We are and always have been supportive of women and their families,” the French Laundry said in a statement. “We are disappointed to see lawyers seeking an exorbitant sum for erroneous claims, and believe that these types of frivolous cases do a disservice to the very cause they are meant to further.”
Scott-Allen, 28, worked at Per Se for five years and rose to the highest server position of captain before requesting a transfer to the Napa Valley restaurant. According to her lawsuit, Scott-Allen said the transfer was approved and she moved to California where she was told they couldn’t offer her the job. In the interim, she had told her bosses she was pregnant.
During a three-week trial, Scott-Allen’s attorneys presented internal emails and other documents they said showed managers learned about Scott-Allen’s pregnancy and then devised an elaborate scheme to get rid of her that included tricking her into resigning from Per Se while leading her to believe she had a job waiting at the French Laundry.
Scott-Allen was seeking more than $1 million in damages. Keller was named as an individual defendant because he owns and controls the two restaurants.
Carla Minnard, an attorney for Scott-Allen, said they planned to appeal.
“We do disagree with their verdict and believe that it was against the evidence,” Minnard said.
Defense attorneys offered a different account, saying Scott-Allen didn’t get the job for performance reasons. During the trial, lawyers representing the Keller group said that French Laundry manager Michael Minnillo, who was also named in the lawsuit, had worked with Scott-Allen at Per Se and didn’t think highly of her, and that he never extended a formal job offer to her.
Defense attorney Mike Laurenson said there was no conspiracy, just a misunderstanding, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
“Mr. Minnillo simply didn’t care for Ms. Scott-Allen and should have done a better job of communicating,” Laurenson said in closing arguments Tuesday.