Five years ago, Dion Miller arrived at a Wisconsin restaurant shortly before his 9:30 a.m. shift. The assistant kitchen manager at Sparx Restaurant in Menomonee was greeted by another employee, who told him he needed to see something on the cooler, according to court documents.
As Miller, who is black, approached the door, he noticed a picture of Gary Coleman, who had died a few months earlier. Above the Diff’rent Strokes actor’s mug hung a colored-on dollar bill. Someone had scribbled a noose around the neck of a partially black-faced George Washington. A swastika was etched on the founding father’s forehead.
Next to Washington was a klansman with “KKK” written on his hood. Miller’s supervisor told him another employee, Chris Jarmuzek, did it as a joke. But Miller wasn’t laughing.
Three weeks later Miller was fired. The reason? He had a bad attitude. Though Jarmuzek should have been fired under the restaurant’s policy, he was allowed to keep his job.
In 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against owner Chris Brekken, alleging Miller was canned for complaining about the racist atmosphere. The courts awarded Miller a total of $56,000 for damages and back pay, but Miller hasn’t seen a dime.
“There have been a lot of opportunities for them to make the payments and they haven’t done it,” says Jessica Palmer-Denig, senior trial attorney with the federal employment commission.
Between the amount owed Miller, attorney’s fees, and a 10 percent penalty, Brekken’s now on the hook for $82,000, and he has failed to provide the commission with court-ordered financial records. Another grand is added to his tab each day Brekken fails to pay and make good with the documents. Palmer-Denig says Brekken was asked if he wanted to propose a payment arrangement, and he declined.
Brekken’s lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment.
While Sparx has since shuttered, Brekken operates a Denny’s franchise in its space. According to Palmer-Denig, Brekken and his lawyers say the company can’t swing the $82,000.
“They have indicated that the company is not financially successful,” she says. “But from what we understand it’s open and it’s paying its bills enough to stay open. This is one of the obligations of that company.”
The money might come soon, even if it’s ripped from Brekken’s hands. This week a Wisconsin judge determined Brekken was in contempt of the court’s orders. The commission won a garnish on his holding company’s bank account, meaning any deposits will be snatched and used to pay off the debt.