MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — A former Applebee's supervisor is suing the restaurant chain, claiming she was retaliated against and fired after kicking out a customer who made Islamophobic comments while at the restaurant's bar.
Amanda Breaud, 25, of Eatontown was supervising a shift at the chain's Middletown location on Route 35 on May 13, 2019, when she was approached by a customer complaining that a bar patron was having an offensive conversation with a bartender, according to a complaint filed Tuesday in state Superior Court.
Breaud was told the customer's comments included, "Muslim people are disgusting" and "most of them terrorists," according to the lawsuit. The conversation was sparked by a news report about refugees that was playing on one of the TVs near the bar, Breaud said.
The customer told Breaud that the bartender was participating in the conversation and had agreed with several of the remarks. Two other families quickly complained to Breaud about the same conversation and "pleaded with her to do something to end it," the complaint states.
Breaud asked the customer to leave because of the offensive remarks. The customer, a regular at the bar, became "irate," but eventually left.
Breaud said several customers told her that night that they appreciated her actions and one left a note on a receipt reading in part, "To the manager — Thank you for standing up to hate."
But the bartender and Breaud's supervisors had a different reaction, according to the suit.
Jan. 23:He got a settlement from a race discrimination lawsuit. A bank wouldn't cash the check
The bartender openly complained to other staff in front of bar patrons about Breaud's actions, claiming they were causing her to lose tips from regulars.
Breaud also received an angry phone call from the restaurant's general manager that night, "berating" her for booting out the customer and telling her she should have asked the offended customers to move to another area of the restaurant, all according to the complaint.
"My jaw hit the floor," Breaud said in an interview. "I couldn't believe that he told me that."
She said she had no doubt at the time that she handled the situation appropriately and said she would "do it again a thousand times over."
During the call, the manager told her she didn't have the authority to tell customers to refrain from "discussing religion," a remark Breaud's lawyers called an attempt to downplay the customer's "blatantly racist and openly discriminatory conduct and behavior."
Breaud reported the incident, including the remarks from the customer and the reprimand from her manager, to the restaurant chain's human resources department the next day, a complaint she said was never fully investigated.
Several days later, she told the chain's area director that she "could no longer work" at the Middletown restaurant because of the hostile atmosphere and asked to be transferred to the Tinton Falls location, where she had previously worked before being temporarily moved to Middletown, according to the suit.
Breaud claims management denied her request and continued to schedule her for shifts in Middletown. Breaud was "unable to tolerate even a single day more in the the hostile work environment" at the restaurant and refused the schedule, the complaint states.
On May 20, exactly one week after the incident, the general manager accused her of missing a shift and she was fired. Breaud claims the accusation was "false and retaliatory."
The complaint claims the firing was not in keeping with a standing progressive discipline policy.
"The actions taken by Ms. Breaud should be celebrated, not punished," Breaud's attorney Christian V. McOmber of the Red Bank law firm McOmber & McOmber said in a statement. "The retaliation experienced by our client has no place in a civilized society and Applebee’s must be held to account for its failure to oppose racism in its restaurants and for violating our client’s rights."
Immediately after she was fired, Breaud wrote a letter to the restaurant criticizing the work environment and her manager's "coaching" that she should have asked customers allegedly offended by anti-Muslim comments to move to another area of the restaurant.
"That is not the message I want to send my guests," she wrote. "I want them to feel safe and leave WOWed."
The suit names Applebee's, its franchisee Doherty Management Services, and individual employees of the Middletown restaurant as defendants.
"We pride ourselves on being an active partner of each community that we serve and are proud to operate inclusive restaurants where all are welcome," Brian M. Lowe, a spokesperson for Doherty, said in a statement. He declined further comment, citing pending litigation.
Susan Nelson, Applebee's vice president of communications, said in a statement to NBC News: “We take claims such as these very seriously ... The allegations made are in direct contrast with the values we and our franchisees uphold every day.”
Breaud said she hoped the suit would send a message that people need to speak up when they witness intolerance.
"I'm a gay woman and I've been at the bar before or out in public and had people say things about me. A lot of my life, I wish that someone would have stood up for me," she said. "Now that I'm able to stand up for myself, I want to stand up for other people."
The suit demands Breaud be reinstated and receive back pay and punitive damages. It also calls for defendants to undergo anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation training.
Contributing: Joel Shannon, USA TODAY.
Follow Andrew Goudsward on Twitter: @AGoudsward