Supreme Court tosses out Human Relations Commission case and damages

The Delaware Supreme Court ruled last month that a white Dover movie theater manager did not discriminate against a theater full of mostly black patrons when he delivered a pre-show announcement prior to a film screening in 2007.

A three-judge panel affirmed a Superior Court decision overturning a judgment issued by the Delaware Human Relations Commission, which held that manager David Stewart and his employer Carmike Cinemas Inc. were guilty of racial discrimination.

The commission’s 2008 ruling ordered the accused to pay more than $76,000 in damages and legal fees, including $1,500 to each of the 33 audience members who participated in the complaint.

The complaint hinged on Stewart’s remarks to a packed theater before the opening screening of the Tyler Perry film “Why Did I Get Married?” in October 2007. According to court documents, Stewart reminded the moviegoers to silence their cell phones, stay quiet and remain seated during the show.

After Stewart made the announcement, he was approached by a black patron who said the remarks were not well received, prompting Stewart to apologize to the audience and explain it was theater policy to make such a statement before an especially crowded show.

Later, a woman in the audience solicited contact information from others who felt Stewart’s remarks were offensive and meant to indicate black patrons were more likely to cause a disturbance during the movie. The woman later was identified as Juana Fuentes-Bowles, then-director of the Human Relations Commission. Court papers say Fuentes-Bowles did not indicate her position and claimed to be “an attorney or someone who worked for an attorney.”

Days after the screening, a HRC staffer contacted the people on the list, organized a meeting with Fuentes-Bowles and drafted a complaint, which court documents said alleged Stewart’s announcement had a “condescending tone” and, on its face, constituted unequal treatment.

When the HRC heard the case, Carmike brought two witnesses who testified that they were not offended by Stewart’s remarks. Stewart also testified that he delivered similar announcements in his career whenever a theater was packed for a show, including the week prior to the incident at issue, when he gave the same speech to a full audience of mostly teens who were seeing “Halloween.”

The HRC concluded Stewart’s announcement was an illegal act of racially motivated discrimination, but on appeal the Superior Court ruled there was no evidence proving the announcement treated black audience members differently than white audience members.

Furthermore, the court said the HRC provided no reason for discounting the credibility of Stewart and disregarding the fact that his actions were dictated by company policy.

The HRC appealed the decision to the Supreme Court in January. The court released its ruling Feb. 17.

Current HRC chair Calvin Christopher said in an emailed statement that he supports the methods the commission used to render its verdict.

“I am confident that the hearing panel heard the testimony and examined any evidence in a thorough and unbiased manner,” he said. “I support and respect their decision and also respect the decision of both the Superior and Supreme Courts.”

A manager at the Dover theater referred all inquiries to the company’s Georgia headquarters, but calls to officials there were not returned.

Efforts to contact Fuentes-Bowles for comments on the ruling were unsuccessful. She retired from her post in 2009.

Email Doug Denison at