Tipp City man sues Cracker Barrel for wrongful termination, claims discrimination

The civil trial of a Tipp City man suing Cracker Barrel for wrongful termination based on age, race and disability is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court.

Johnny Wills claims 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 because he was a black man over 40 years old — therefore in a protected class — who had a rare liver disease. The suit seeks damages in excess of $500,000. Attorneys for Cracker Barrel claim Willis resigned, was not fired and therefore has no claim.

Wills, 47 when he filed suit, started at the Richmond, Ind. Cracker Barrel in 1999, was promoted to general manager in Findlay and 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 six times from 2008 and 2010 and other time as necessary for doctors’ appointments, according to court documents

Court documents show Wills was put on a work improvement plan in April 2010, which was extended from 60 to 90 days after Wills took more medical leave. Wills claims he was told in July 2010 that he “had not been sympathetic enough to (an) employee when he had called off work for a funeral.”

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.”

Court documents also indicate Miller called another manager the night before Wills’ employment ended and told that manager to go to the Miller Lane location. That manager, a white male younger than Wills, was at the store 90 minutes after Wills left, was named interim manager and ultimately named general manager.

Several motions and briefs have been filed in the case scheduled for Judge Timothy N. O’Connell’s courtroom. Disputes range from whether or not references to Wills’ Social Security benefits should be allowed in testimony to whether or not the defense can prevent a plantiff’s expert witness from taking the stand.

Another issue in which a ruling had not been announced involved the defendant’s motion to separate the liability, compensatory and punitive portions of the trial, if needed. Court documents showed the sides were far apart in settlement negotiations.

Based on attorneys’ estimates for their cases, the trial could stretch into next week.