French Laundry chef Thomas Keller sued for discrimination

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SAN FRANCISCO — A former employee of celebrated chef Thomas Keller is suing him and his three-star Michelin restaurants — Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in California — for discrimination, saying she was denied a job transfer and ultimately let go because she was pregnant.

Vanessa Scott-Allen is seeking $5 million in damages for allegations that include sex discrimination and violation of pregnancy disability leave and says she hopes her trial, which started Monday, will draw attention to a "culture of misogyny in fine dining," said her attorney, Carla Minnard.

"This is one of the last bastions where it is OK for women to be discriminated against," Minnard said ahead of the trial in Napa County Superior Court. She said the case will highlight antiquated traditions in the fine dining world where men are favored for high-paying "front of the house" jobs and seen as more suitable to interact with high-paying guests. In the case of Scott-Allen, "they found out she was pregnant and figured out a way to backpedal on" a job transfer, she said.

Keller was named as an individual defendant because he owns and controls the two restaurants. A Thomas Keller Restaurant Group spokesman, Pierre Rougier, said the company cannot comment on pending litigation.

An attorney for the company told the court Monday that Scott-Allen was dismissed because of performance issues, not her pregnancy, and that she had misconstrued pleasantries as a formal job offer, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Scott-Allen, 28, started at Per Se in 2011 as a kitchen server who plated food. She was promoted through the ranks until she was named a "captain" or head server at the restaurant, where set menus start at $355 per person and she earned a six-digit salary.

According to the lawsuit, she visited the French Laundry in January 2016 during a vacation to California with her husband and told General Manager Michael Minnillo they were considering a move out West. Minnillo told her the French Laundry "would love" to have her work there, the lawsuit says.

Scott-Allen returned to New York and hammered out details of moving to the California restaurant, eventually filling out the company's internal transfer form in February 2016 and agreeing to start her new position that April, the lawsuit says.

In the interim, she learned she was pregnant and informed her bosses, who discussed it on company email.

"Apparently she is pregnant," Minnillo wrote in a March 1, 2016, email to the company's head of human resources, cited in court filings. "She never mentioned this to me. I am confused how to proceed."

"Well, unfortunately not much we can do," Julie Secviar, head of HR for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, replied in an email, cited in court filings. "What was committed verbally or in writing?"

Scott-Allen's lawsuit alleges Secviar and Minnillo devised a plan to get rid of her by setting up a "sham interview" that would result in her being declared "not the right fit" for the French Laundry.

Minnillo addressed the interview during an April deposition. Scott-Allen's lawyers showed a video of the deposition during Monday's opening statements. In it, Minillo is asked if he wanted to hire Scott-Allen after learning she was pregnant.

"No, I didn't," he said in an excerpt of the video provided to The Associated Press. He added Secviar recommended they go through the motions of holding the interview to avoid a lawsuit.

"We both agreed, she is going to sue us for pregnancy discrimination," Minnillo said during the deposition. Asked if they planned to deny her a job after the interview, he answered: "Yes."

Minnillo and the two restaurants are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Defense attorney Michael Bruno pointed to the March email from Minnillo as proof that there was no discrimination involved in their decision making, the Chronicle reported. Bruno told the court Monday that Minnillo worked with Scott-Allen previously in New York and didn't want to hire her because of her performance.

"He wanted to know, did (the pregnancy) tie his hands? A perfectly reasonable and acceptable question," Bruno said.

On March 7, 2016, Scott-Allen was asked to sign a "Notice of Resignation" that management told her was a standard part of the transfer process, but her attorney says was a way to "dupe her into quitting." As a result of resigning, Scott-Allen lost her health insurance and was unable to see doctors for first-trimester check-ups, the lawsuit says.

On March 10, Scott-Allen's last day of work at Per Se, the restaurant's internal bulletin published a picture of Keller hugging Scott-Allen with a message: "Thank you Vanessa! May your warmth, grace and impact shine just as brightly at TFL (the French Laundry) as it has here."

In early April, she went to meet French Laundry managers and was asked about her pregnancy, including if she felt she could do her job while pregnant, how much leave she planned to take and when she expected to stop working, the lawsuit says.

Within a week, Minnillo told her "there is no position for you" and that he never intended to hire her. In a formal letter April 12, 2016, Minnillo and Secviar told her they were unable to offer her a job.

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This version corrects that Keller was not in court Monday and that Secviar is not a defendant in the case.

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