A $5.5 million lawsuit accusing a well-known Portland nightclub mogul of systemic racism by directing staff to limit the number of black customers in some of his bars has settled for an undisclosed amount.
Chris Lenahan disputed the claims, but several former employees were poised to testify in a Multnomah County Circuit Court trial this week that Lenahan referred to African-American patrons using racist terms and enacted a selectively enforced no-gang-colors dress code to limit the number of black patrons.
A former worker also was expected to testify that Lenahan directed security staff to deny entry to Trail Blazers LaMarcus Aldridge and Dante Cunningham, who are both black, in 2010 or 2011.
The lawsuit also claimed Lenahan instructed employees to limit the number of other racial minorities, including people of Asian decent.
Lenahan maintains a huge presence on the city’s nightclub scene. According to court documents, he is part owner of five nightlife venues and bars in the Old Town and Pearl District areas: Dirty Nightlife, Splash Bar, Shake Bar, Paris Theatre and the LGBTQ-friendly Sanctuary. He also travels and speaks nationally about how to operate successful nightclubs and has written a book on the subject, according to the plaintiff’s attorneys.
Lenahan and the other named defendant, the company Vegasstars, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday through their lawyer, Ryan Kunkel, who didn’t respond to messages.
But in court depositions and filings, Lenahan and Kunkel said Lenahan isn’t racist, the gang-colors dress code was meant to keep the club safe, the dress code wasn’t enforced based on race and the lawsuit was filed by someone eager to sue from the start.
Plaintiff Sam Thompson said in the suit that he tried to get into Dirty Nightlife at Northwest Third Avenue and Couch Street but was denied in May 2017. Thompson, who is black, was 35 at the time.
He said he was told he couldn’t get into the club because he was wearing a red sweatshirt and red shoes.
The club said it had a policy of not allowing in people wearing excessively matching colors affiliated with gangs: red, blue, orange or green. Lenahan’s attorney wrote that front-door staff said they would let Thompson in if he changed into a T-shirt they offered him, but Thompson refused.
Thompson told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Wednesday that dress codes at downtown Portland nightclubs are well known in the African American community as a device to discriminate.
“In Portland, there’s not a lot of overt racism — it’s not a city where you run around and you get called the n-word,” Thompson said. “It’s more a place where systems and policies are in place that create that divide.”
Thompson said the reason given for not letting him in that night was particularly upsetting because he works as a mentor to help gang-affiliated men, ages 18 to 29, who are on probation or post-prison supervision.
Thompson and his two lawyers, Tim Volpert and Noah Horst, filed a lawsuit in May 2018. Over the past year, Thompson said he was surprised by how openly some former workers at the clubs spoke in their depositions of racism they said they’d seen.
According to court documents filed by Thompson’s lawyers:
— Artie Haws, a bar manager at Splash and bartender at Shake, said Lenahan directed him to manage the “color of the club” like a pie chart because “we don’t want it to get too dark.” Haws said Lenahan said no more than 30 percent of the customers should be black because he didn’t want a “black bar.”
— Haws said Lenahan sometimes spoke in code but sometimes was more blunt saying, “No more black people. We’ve got too many.” Lenahan then would direct security staff to raise the cover charge or enforce the no-gang-colors dress code for that group, Haws said.
— Kenan Powell, a security worker who staffed the Dirty Nightlife club entrance for one night, said he never returned to the post because he couldn’t “stand to work for such a blatantly racist club.” He said if the club was determined to have reached its racial quota, new arrivals who were people of color were told at a side door that they were violating the dress code and could get in only if they paid an additional $5 to $40 cover charge.
— Powell said Trail Blazers Aldridge and Cunningham were told they were violating the dress code despite their “expensive European shoes, designer jeans, button up shirts and sports jackets,” while a white man wearing ripped jeans and a dirty sports jersey was let into the club that same night.
— Carmen Gilberts, a bartender at Shake, said she heard Lenahan shout over a club radio system “get these (n-words) out of here” in October 2015.
The allegations were first reported by the nonprofit media organization High Country News and the settlement was first reported by Willamette Week.
The lawsuit originally sought $100,000 in noneconomic damages for Thompson’s emotional pain and suffering.
Last week, just before the case settled, Thompson’s attorneys filed a motion to increase the amount to $500,000 in noneconomic damages plus $5 million in punitive damages for what they alleged was long-standing harm to Portland’s African American community.
“We are holding the owner of several Portland bars accountable for racial discrimination thanks to Sam Thompson’s willingness to file a civil rights case and the testimony of several brave witnesses,” said Thompson’s lawyers, Volpert and Horst. “Together, they stood up against the racial discrimination Sam and other people of color experience daily. Racial discrimination has no place in Portland.”
As part of the settlement, Thompson and his lawyers said Lenahan has agreed to drop the no-gang-colors dress code at two of his clubs where he has a controlling interest — Dirty Nightlife and the Paris Theatre.
“That was the most important piece for me,” Thompson said. “The money is cool, but the policy was what I was really going after.”
— Aimee Green
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