|By Emma Ritch, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 21, 2004 - The NAACP settled its discrimination lawsuit with the Yachtsman Resort Hotel, mandating policy changes, discounts and a monetary settlement for the plaintiffs.
As part of the settlement announced Wednesday, the hotel did not admit to discrimination during Atlantic Beach Bikefest but will pay compensation, costs and attorney fees.
Yachtsman General Manager Tom Gardiner did not return calls seeking comment. Reynolds Williams, a lawyer for the hotel, and plaintiff lawyer Rick Talisman were able only to confirm the settlement.
The agreement barred representatives of both sides from discussing the settlement with the media.
Plaintiffs Washica and Michael Little said the settlement is worth $1.2 million, but they were not sure how it would be divided.
Settlement documents say 51 1/3 percent of the sum will be divided among the 12 named plaintiffs and the Conway Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The rest will go into a fund for other guests who stayed in the 144-suite hotel during any of the Atlantic Beach bike rallies in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
Michael Little said he and his wife, both of Easley, probably would start returning to the rally, although they skipped it last year.
"We've been there for a number of years, and it kept getting worse and worse," he said. "I feel like with the hotel settling the way they did, it at least shows there's something that was wrong."
"I feel like it increases our chances with the city and the restaurants," he said.
Plaintiffs still are pursuing a resolution in the NAACP lawsuit against Myrtle Beach.
Mark Navarre, attorney for the individual plaintiffs in that suit, said they unsuccessfully discussed a settlement last week after Mayor Mark McBride gave his deposition.
Navarre said both sides are reviewing the transcript and should release it to the media within a couple weeks.
City spokesman Mark Kruea said the city is "absolutely" still fighting the charges despite the Yachtsman's settlement.
"I cannot see how it has any effect on the suit against the city," he said.
Plaintiffs and city officials will give depositions next week, Navarre said.
"When it comes to discrimination settlements, it's really difficult to do comparisons" because most of them are confidential, said David Larson, a professor and senior fellow at the Hamline University School of Law in Minnesota.
The hotel had a clear case of liability and settled for a notable sum of money considering the hotel is not part of a chain, Larson said.
"It's a significant amount of money, but when you look at the terms of the settlement and look at the length of time being covered and what the potential [plaintiff pool] is, it doesn't look like a bad deal to the hotel," he said.
"It's pretty obvious the [plaintiffs were] interested in things other than just a monetary award," Larson said.
The required welcome sign is a public proclamation that the hotel is making a change, he said.
"While they could have held out and gotten more money, the settlement's not about just money. It's about correcting behavior," he said. "It's a public declaration that blacks are in fact welcome at this hotel."
The settlement requires the hotel to provide yearly anti-discrimination training to employees.
"They may reap a lot of benefits from that that may go on beyond biker week. It may be saving them lots of money; that may be preventing other lawsuits," Larson said.
Washica Little said she was furious when the hotel made them sign a guest contract with more than 30 regulations but said she hopes the atmosphere changes.
"I hope everyone will give the city of Myrtle Beach a chance again after this [settlement]," she said.
City Budget Director Mike Shelton said the city has earmarked $350,000 this year for outside attorneys to fight lawsuits against the city, up from $250,000 to $275,000 average during the past couple years. This increase is because the city already knew it would be fighting the NAACP lawsuit, he said.
The city's legal costs still could exceed or fall short of those projections, he said.
Navarre said monetary reimbursement is listed on the suit against the city, "but the main thing is we're looking for a change in the traffic and policing policies. We're not looking for the city to admit there was discrimination."
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