Pizza Franchise, City Employees In Court Battle

SNOW HILL – A Worcester County judge late last month ruled favorably on some defendants’ motions to dismiss, but ruled against a similar motion filed by a local business in the suddenly high-profile civil suit filed by two high-ranking Baltimore City employees against a resort pizza parlor for allegedly refusing to serve them and ultimately imprisoning them against their will last summer.

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon’s Chief of Staff Demaune Millard, along with Deputy City Solicitor Donald R. Huskey and Deputy Director of Minority Business Enterprise with the state’s Department of Transportation John Carpenter, filed suit against several corporate levels of Domino’s Pizza and a local franchisee, OC Extra Cheese, Inc., last August seeking a combined $30 million after the local pizzeria allegedly refused to serve them late at night last Aug. 15 and held them against their will for as long as 10 minutes by refusing to unlock a magnetic door at the entrance of the carryout store. The three plaintiffs were in Ocean City attending the annual Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) convention and entered the pizzeria around 1:30 a.m. after leaving a sanctioned event at a nearby restaurant.

In late May, Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Theodore Eschenberg ruled favorably on a motion to dismiss the case filed by the Domino’s corporate entities named as defendants, citing the parent company’s apparent lack of control over what happened at the franchisee level.

“Examining the record and pleadings in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs, this court finds the plaintiffs have not shown that the corporate defendants exercise, or even have the ability to exercise, day-to-day control over OC Extra Cheese, Inc. employees,” the judge’s opinion reads. “The corporate defendants had no control over who was hired or fired or promoted, no control over daily schedules of employees or their hourly rates, did not pay their wages and generally had no right to control or supervise Ocean City Extra Cheese employees.”

However, during the same hearing, Eschenberg denied a motion to dismiss filed by the local franchisee, OC Extra Cheese Inc., citing the business owner could be held responsible for the alleged actions of his employees despite not being on the premises at the time of the alleged incident. Essentially, the judge dismissed the elements of the case related to the corporate defendants, but allowed the case against the local franchisee to move forward. The defendants are seeking $5 million from the local franchise.

“When hiring or retaining an employee, an employer owes a duty to his other employees and to the general public to use reasonable care,” the judge’s opinion reads.

The case unfolded around 1:30 a.m. last Aug. 15 when the three plaintiffs, Millard, Huskey and Carpenter, left a MACO-sanctioned event at a local restaurant and walked over to the nearby Domino’s on 64th Street. According to the complaint, the “open” sign was still lit and the employees buzzed the three men into the store by activating a magnetic automatic lock on the front door.

However, the situation allegedly went down hill in a hurry when store employees and, ultimately, the on-site manager, refused to serve the three men. According to court documents, the manager said to the trio, “I am not going to serve you. I don’t have time. No service.”

In his deposition, the store owner said later his employees refused to serve Millard, Huskey and Carpenter after repeated attempts to take their order because the trio was “uncooperative and seemed intoxicated.” According to the owner, the manager said the plaintiffs “were not giving their order and they were singing and being loud,” according to the deposition. “At that point, the manager chose to deny them service and asked them to leave,” the owner said.

However, after some discussion about why they weren’t being served, including a veiled threat by the manager to call the police if they didn’t leave, the plaintiffs were blocked from leaving by the magnetic door, which had to be activated from behind the counter by store employees. According to the complaint, the three men were not allowed to leave the store for a period of five to 10 minutes despite being denied service, which resulted in the false imprisonment charges in the lawsuit.

According to the complaint, Millard said at the time, “You’re not going to serve us, and now you won’t let us leave.” Despite the plaintiffs’ attempts to leave after not being served, the employees did not buzz them out of the store, according to the plaintiffs’ version of the events.

The original complaint included three counts each of false imprisonment and violations of the Maryland Constitution Declaration of Rights. A third count, negligent hiring and retention, was added in an amended complaint, but the judge ruled late last month the corporate entities of Domino’s named as defendants could not be held liable for the actions of the store manager or employees.