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Chef Has a Bone to Pick With Hyatt

CHICAGO (CN) - A pastry chef who claims a Guinness World Record for tallest chocolate sculpture - a 20-foot 8-inch monster - says Hyatt hotels fired him after 21 years of work because he asked to work fewer hours while he recovered from kidney cancer.

Alain Roby sued Hyatt Corp. dba the Hyatt Regency Chicago, in Federal Court.

Roby says he worked as an executive pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency from 1988 to 2010. He won numerous awards, including Best of Show by the National Restaurant Association Culinary Salon, a Bronze Medal at the National Pastry Team Championships, and an invitation to oversee desserts at the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour, according to the complaint.

His Guinness World Records include the World's Tallest Cooked Sugar Building: 12 feet 10 inches tall, and the World's Tallest Chocolate Sculpture: 20 feet, 8 inches.

Roby was diagnosed with kidney cancer in October 2009.

"Roby had surgery to remove one of his kidneys on or about October 28, 2009 and returned to work approximately three weeks later," the complaint states.

"Even after Roby returned to work, he continued to suffer from the effects of his kidney cancer, including pain and weakness."

He says that in January 2010, he asked Hyatt to reduce his workday to 7 hours, under the Family Medical Leave Act, and submitted a written request for this, from his doctor, to Hyatt's Human Resources Department.

"Specifically, he requested to not work more than 7 hours per day in order to receive continuing treatment and in order to further facilitate his recovery," the complaint states.

Roby says Hyatt's assistant director of human resources, (nonparty) Lea Nissen, granted his request verbally, but not in writing.

However, "Even though Nissen verbally granted Roby's request for a reduced FMLA leave schedule, Roby's superiors strongly discouraged him from working that reduced schedule. For example, Roby's superiors withheld the personnel assistance Roby required to effectively perform his job. Moreover, Roby's superiors specifically admonished him that he needed to work more hours per day," according to the complaint.

Roby says Hyatt also reduced his salary by $244 per week, and that "the salary reduction had no correlation with the number of FMLA hours that Roby actually took as part of his reduced FMLA leave schedule, because he frequently worked more than 7 hours a day."

The complaint adds: "Hyatt also retaliated against Roby for requesting and taking FMLA leave in other ways. For example, after Roby began his reduced FMLA leave schedule, Hyatt disciplined him for reasons that were directly related to his reduced schedule.

"In or about April of 2010, Food and Beverage Manager Keith Spinden cautioned Roby about his alleged lack of 'focus.' When Roby asked for further specifics on this alleged lack of focus, Spinden could not provide any.

"This is the first time Hyatt had ever expressed any problems with Roby's performance during his 21 years of employment.

"Moreover, Roby's discipline for his alleged lack of focus starkly contrasts with his March 2009 review, which praised Roby for his dedication to the hotel and its customers. Hyatt's notes of the April 2010 disciplinary meeting state that 'it had become apparent that his focus was on many things other than the hotel.' In contrast, Roby's 2009 review conceded that 'Alain also helps [Hyatt] to be in the spotlight with all of his awards and competitions.' As such, Hyatt's stated reason for disciplining Roby is pretextual." (Brackets in original)

In July 2010, Roby says, he abandoned his FMLA reduced schedule, against his doctor's advice, because he "feared that if he did not increase his hours, Hyatt would terminate his employment. He also found it impossible to pay his medical bills and meet his other financial obligations with his reduced salary."

Hyatt fired him in December 2010 for his alleged lack of focus, Roby says.

He seeks damages for interference and retaliation under the FMLA.

He is represented by Noelle Brennan, with Brennan & Brown.

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