Former Stonefire Grill Manager Must Arbitrate Age Discrimination Suit

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VAN NUYS (CNS) - A former longtime manager for Stonefire Grill Inc. must arbitrate allegations that he was wrongfully laid off in 2020 because he was 68 years old, a judge ruled today.

Richard Yalem's Van Nuys Superior Court lawsuit sought unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from Stonefire Grill and Goode Partners LLC, which has a majority stake in the eatery known for its grilled entrees, pizzas and salads.

During a hearing Tuesday, Judge Valerie Salkin granted a defense motion to compel binding arbitration and place a stay on the case pending the outcome. She said Yalem's 2010 employment agreement contained a provision to any ``controversy, dispute or claim'' he might have against the restaurant chain.

``Yalem's causes of action fall squarely within the ambit of claims covered by the arbitration agreement in this case,'' the judge wrote while also setting a post-arbitration status conference for June 22. Yalem, now 70, was hired in early 2003 as a lower level employee and was promoted often, achieving various management positions that culminated with the title of outbound catering sales manager when he was laid off, according to the suit, which was filed Aug. 17, 2022.

Stonefire Grill was founded and owned until 2016 by sisters Mary and Maureen Harrigan and Yalem was one of an original group of seven employees who helped the chain grow beyond its first restaurant in Valencia to 14 locations, the suit states. Yalem briefly left in 2008 to work for the Cheesecake Factory, but Mary Harrigan convinced him to return in February 2010, when he signed the employment agreement at issue, the suit states. In a sworn declaration filed in opposition to the motion to compel arbitration, Yalem called the employment agreement a ``densely-written, single-spaced, three-page document'' that he had no choice but to sign if he wanted to be rehired.

Throughout his lengthy career with Stonefire, Yalem served and excelled in a broad range of different managerial roles with the company, according to the suit, which further states he eventually became the face of the restaurant in his home community, where he was affectionately known around town as ``Mr. Stonefire.''   But during the later years of his employment, Yalem was subjected ``to a persistent pattern and practice of harassment and discrimination based on his age'' that included age-based comments in front of his colleagues and superiors as not being considered for promotions to positions for which he was qualified, according to the suit. For more than a decade, Stonefire Grill ``cultivated and fostered an ageist corporate culture that prioritized the hiring, training and promotion of youthful employees under the age of 40 at the expense of older employees with more seniority with the company,'' the suit states.

New York-based equity firm Goode Partners LLC acquired a controlling interest in Stonefire Grill in 2016 and as the years went by, Yalem was subjected to ``humiliating and demeaning harassment and discrimination based on his age,'' the suit alleges.

During a charity event in Hollywood called ``Hilarity for Charity,' at which Stonefire Grill donated pizzas, Yalem was chosen by the company to perform a skit on stage with actor and comedian Seth Rogan, but the company's director of marketing told him just before the event began that he was being replaced because ``we want a younger person to be the face of Stonefire,'' the suit states. Yalem believes the woman who replaced him in the skit was in her early to mid-20s. Yalem and his older colleagues also were passed over for promotions and training opportunities that were given instead to younger employees with less experience, the suit states.

Yalem was furloughed in March 2020 during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, even though marketing assistants in their 20s who reported to him and his older colleagues continued to work, the suit states. Yalem and the rest of his team were laid off in July 2020 and the plaintiff was told it had ``nothing to do with you or your performance,'' the suit states. But Yalem believes that he lost his job ``due to discriminatory bias and animus against him on the basis of his age,'' the suit states.

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