*Two African American men have been trying to file a federal discrimination lawsuit against a local restaurant after claiming they were tossed from the premises after refusing to give up their seats at the bar for two white women.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, former NBA all-star Joe Barry Carroll and Atlanta lawyer Joseph Shaw were enjoying drinks and bar food at The Tavern at Phipps early one evening when they were repeatedly asked to give up their seats to two white women patrons.

Carroll and Shaw politely declined, because they had not finished eating. They noticed the Tavern’s employees did not ask any white men to move and also saw some empty seats at the bar. About 20 minutes later, an Atlanta Police officer summoned by Tavern management escorted Carroll and Shaw out of the Phipps Plaza restaurant.

The Aug. 11, 2006, incident is alleged in federal lawsuits filed by the two men who say they were humiliated by the episode and contend The Tavern violated civil rights public accommodation laws. After almost two years of pretrial litigation, a federal judge must now decide whether the cases should go to trial.

Joe Barry Carroll

Gerry Weber, one of Carroll’s lawyers, contends the plaintiffs have documented a racially discriminatory practice used by Tavern management, which thought the restaurant would be more attractive to white patrons if black customers were moved out of the way.

The Tavern, however, says the suits should be dismissed because the restaurant did nothing wrong.

“The plaintiffs’ allegations about racial discrimination are unfounded, unsubstantiated and specious,” said Simon Bloom III, outside general counsel for the Tavern’s management company. “I can unequivocally say that the Tavern operates a color-blind business. It does not take race, color or creed into account for any aspect of its operations.”

What led to the lawsuits, he said, was a color-blind practice “focused on hospitality, gentility and good manners.”

In a court motion, the Tavern said the restaurant strived to maintain a courteous and chivalrous atmosphere. “When the seats at the bar are full, it is the unwritten practice to ask male customers sitting at the bar who are not eating to give up their seats to female customers standing and waiting for a seat.” The evidence shows that Carroll and Shaw “were asked to give up their seats solely because they are men, not because they are African-American.”

In court filings, lawyers for Carroll and Shaw cite pretrial testimony from former Tavern employees who said the restaurant limited the number of African-American hostesses on peak nights, limited the number of African-American waitresses and bartenders, eliminated Hennessy Cognac and Heineken from the menu because it was popular with young black customers and delayed service to black patrons, especially in the bar area.

During the February 2003 NBA All Star game, Tavern management knew the restaurant would get a large influx of black patrons so it hung up two large “Welcome Rodeo Fans” banners and instructed its musicians to play country music, Chris Pappas, a former operating partner of the Tavern, testified. Even though a bull riding event was in town that week, this was done to deter black NBA fans from entering the restaurant, he said.