Jury sides with Cracker Barrel in discrimination trial

A Montgomery County Common Pleas jury sided with Cracker Barrel in a disability discrimination lawsuit field by a former manager.

The jury of five men and three women voted 6-2 in favor of Cracker Barrel’s parent company that Johnny Wills was not involuntarily discharged from his position. The same 6-2 margin voted in favor of Cracker Barrel on the question of whether or not the company had discriminated against Wills based on a rare liver disease that ultimately resulted in an organ transplant.

The jury reached the decision late Tuesday night.

Since the jury found for the defendant on those issues, there was no discussion about damages. Attorneys and participants for both sides declined to comment after the verdict.

The weeklong civil trial, before Judge Timothy N. O’Connell, hinged on whether or not the jury found that Wills’ hand-written resignation letter was forced and, if so, if part of the decision was based on Wills’ medical condition.

Wills, of Tipp City,claimed in a lawsuit filed in 2011 that he was fired in July 2010 from his job as the general manager of the Cracker Barrel on Miller Lane. Attorneys for Cracker Barrel claim Willis resigned, was not fired and therefore has no claim. Both sides accused the other of cover ups.

Wills, 47 when he filed suit, moved to the Dayton store in 2003. Named general manager of the year in 2007, Willis was diagnosed with hemochromatosis in 2008. That condition led to Willis taking approved time off multiple times from 2008 and 2010 and other time as necessary for doctors’ appointments, according to court documents

Wills’ suit says that on July 31, 2010, he was called in to talk to Cracker Barrel district manager David Miller. Wills claims Miller told him, “You’re done” and to turn in his keys. Wills claims he only produced a hand-written resignation letter because Miller said that’s the only way Wills would get benefits including two more weeks pay, vacation pay and bonus pay. In court documents, Miller denies the allegation, saying that “I did not terminate Wills or tell him that if he did not resign he would be fired.”

Cracker Barrel has been sued in multiple lawsuits relating to the chain’s discriminatory practices against customers and staff. In 2004, it settled a 2004 discrimination lawsuit with the U.S. Justice Department by paying $8.7 million. The company paid $2 million in a suit brought against three Illinois restaurants.