TRUEDIVA TALK

Delaware Supreme Court overturns cinema ruling

In February 2011 on March 13, 2011 at 9:47 am

The Delaware Supreme Court overturned a decision by the state Human Relations Commission that the manager of a Dover cinema was racist when he used a “condescending tone” in telling a crowd of largely black patrons viewing a Tyler Perry movie to silence their cell phones and remain quiet.

The commission also ordered the Carmike 14 Theater to pay nearly $80,000 for violating the Delaware Equal Accommodations Law after it determined the October 2007 announcement — which was not regularly made in that way in other theaters — “insulted, humiliated and demeaned” patrons in that manager David Stewart had singled out a black audience at a “minority-themed” movie.

Court papers note that extra security also was brought in that night and guards were double-checking ticket stubs as audience members entered, which the plaintiffs said further added to the humiliation.

The Supreme Court, however, tossed out that finding and the fine late last week, ruling there was no racist language in the announcement, no specific group was singled out and the non-racial explanation for the announcement — that it was part of a since-discontinued company policy at sold-out shows to ensure that all patrons would enjoy the movie — was reasonable.

The court also noted that the then-director of the state Office of Human Relations was in the crowd that night, announced to the theater that she was offended and organized patrons to file the complaint with the Human Relations Commission.

The incident happened Oct. 12, 2007, at the sold-out 7:15 p.m. showing of the movie “Why Did I Get Married?” where the cinema was showing the picture in three theaters simultaneously.

The warning about cell phones was shown on the screen and then was delivered in person in the largest of the three auditoriums by Stewart, according to court papers. Some patrons later said Stewart’s tone “was offensive and condescending, as if he were speaking to children.” And because the crowd, which had been well-behaved to that point, was “90 to 95 percent” black, some felt it was racist because it implied that blacks did not know how to behave in a movie theater.

One patron told the commission she had been to hundreds of movies at the theater and never before heard such an announcement. At least two other patrons testified that they were not offended.

The Supreme Court noted that immediately after someone complained to Stewart, he returned to the theater and apologized, explaining the announcement was company policy. Realizing the crowd was upset, he also waited at the exit door after the movie to thank patrons for attending.

Stewart later explained that there was extra security that night because of a recent robbery at the theater, and on that night he asked one of the security officers to check ticket stubs to help direct patrons to the correct theater since the movie was being shown on three screens.

One person in the theater who stood up and announced her opinion that the manager’s actions were racist was Juana Fuentes-Bowles, then the director of the state’s Human Relations Division, according to the ruling. Fuentes-Bowles, who apparently did not announce her title but said she was “an attorney or someone who worked for an attorney,” then collected names and phone numbers of patrons who were offended. A division employee then called patrons and organized a meeting, including Fuentes-Bowles, after which a complaint was drafted.

Fuentes-Bowles also initially signed on to the complaint with 33 others, but later took her name off it so she would not be “a distraction,” according to the ruling.

In 2008, a three-member panel of the commission ruled that the announcement violated Delaware’s equal access law — though everyone in the theater was still able to see the film — because the circumstances were hostile and one that any reasonable person would find objectionable.

The commission then awarded each of the people who complained $1,500 in damages, fined the cinema $5,000 and ordered it to pay more than $20,000 in the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and costs.

Fuentes-Bowles left her position with the state in May 2009 and could not be located for comment this week.

Christopher R. Portante, a spokesman for the Delaware Department of State, which oversees Human Relations, said the department “stands behind” the commission’s decision.

While the commission determined that the theater’s explanations were “not credible,” a three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court ruled the commission failed to adequately explain why it came to that conclusion and added that the commission “legally erred” on several important points.

Justices Randy J. Holland, Carolyn Berger and Jack B. Jacobs ruled the non-racial explanations for the announcement were reasonable and pointed to uncontested evidence that a week earlier Stewart had made the same announcement at a showing of the movie “Halloween” to a largely teenage audience.

Matt Neiderman, an attorney representing Carmike Cinemas and Stewart, declined comment Tuesday.

 

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