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.

Between Oct. 1, 1999 and Sept. 30, 2000, the most recent period available, the EEOC nationwide reported 16,008 claims of age discrimination, up from 14,141 for the like period the year earlier. Of those, more than half were found to have no reasonable cause.

"I think in L.A. this is really pervasive," Park said. "I know there's certain industries where image is important, where it's truly young and hip. We had a case a few years ago against the Mondrian Hotel that was based on national origin where (the employees) didn't fit their image. It was a similar argument that there's a certain image they have to portray, and often times that leads to situations where we believe it's discriminatory."

In the Mondrian case, the West Hollywood hotel paid $1.08 million in August 2000 to settle the lawsuit, which claimed the hotel fired nine bellmen most of whom were of other nationalities and replaced them with 15 white workers before the hotel reopened in 1996.

Cohen said the analogy is "outrageous" because the Mondrian actually fired employees.

"The Beverly Hilton is an institution," he said. "It's a home to many people who've been there for many years. Unlike some hotels, where they're trying to be trendy or the hotel of the moment, we've been there for 40 years, and Merv has owned it for 14 years. We don't look for trends, or immediate hits."

The EEOC is seeking an unspecified amount of compensation for the plaintiffs based on to what they would have earned had they gotten the jobs at the club.

Noe said the EEOC is basing its figure on the expected time each plaintiff would have worked had he or she received the job, at the standard minimum wage plus typical tips at a bar like The Coconut Club. Minimum wage is $6.25 an hour. Typical tips, she said, could be between $250 to $500 a week.

"The EEOC has claimed some outrageous amount of money," said Cohen. "I have no idea how they come up with that number. The Coconut Club was a small club only open two days a week with a handful of servers each day, Friday and Saturday. Mathematically, the number is probably multiples of what our entire payroll was."

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