The Coconut Club bar at the Beverly Hilton Hotel is having a bad year.
When the economy showed signs of souring in early spring, the club shut its doors. It was expected to re-open in the fall, but with tourism off even more dramatically after Sept. 11, the club has been closed indefinitely.
Now, impresario Merv Griffin's hotel is being hit with a class action age discrimination suit filed this month by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The commission filed the suit on behalf of 11 men and women all over 40 who claim they were denied jobs as servers at the swing and salsa bar because they were too old. The hotel says they were denied jobs because they did not have adequate experience.
"They'd all had experience at major hotels in the bars as bartenders or as servers," said Sue Noe, the EEOC attorney representing the class. "All of them had close to 20 years experience. One had worked for the Hilton previously at another location and had a significant amount of training, even in wines and beers and other alcohol and dinners."
Larry Cohen, president and chief executive of The Griffin Group, which owns the hotel, said the company is "outraged" by the EEOC's lawsuit.
"We don't believe this has any merit whatsoever," he said. "Somebody over there is trying to make a name for himself. The Beverly Hilton is the model of what an employer should be in the 2000s. The fact that the owner of the hotel is 76 years old, and they're claiming age discrimination, is unbelievable."
He said more than a quarter of the employees at the Beverly Hilton Hotel had worked there at least 20 years.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Brenda Ngoho, a 54-year-old applicant who the EEOC said worked for more than 20 years at another major hotel. For eight years prior to that, the suit stated, she worked in the VIP Dining Room at Playboy Club as a "bunny."
Ngoho claims she applied for the Coconut Club job in March 1999. The other 10 individuals are not named in the case.
The 11 plaintiffs applied for jobs between 1998 and 2000 at The Coconut Club and are between ages 40 and 70, according to the suit.
Age discrimination suits have become especially prevalent in the past year as more baby boomers reach the "silver ceiling," said Anna Park, executive director of the EEOC in Los Angeles.
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