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Wine Train Fighting Suit Over PR Blunder

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A Napa Valley Wine Train attorney on Monday urged a federal judge to toss an $11 million lawsuit brought by 11 women who claim they were kicked off a train for "laughing while black."

Lead plaintiff Lisa Johnson sued the wine train, its owners and three employees this past October over an Aug. 22 incident that sparked a social media backlash against the wine train company for its handling of the situation.

The 11 women, members of the "Sistahs of the Reading Edge Book Club," say they informed the wine train months in advance about the size of their group and plans to discuss a book "with lots of dialogue and laughter." Though they were told their group would be accommodated, a wine train employee scolded the women about their "noise level" before ordering them off the train in St. Helena - where local police awaited them.

Wine train attorney Patrick Wingfield spent most of his time Monday imploring U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to dismiss one of the lawsuit's 10 claims - discrimination under the color of state law. That charge is based on claims that the wine train worked with local police to deprive the women of equal protection under the law.

Plaintiffs' attorney Waukeen McCoy pointed to a 1961 Supreme Court case, Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, which found because a restaurant that refused to serve black patrons leased its property from a state agency, both the state and business could be held liable for discrimination.

"There's no allegation that the government receives financial benefits tied to the discriminatory acts or tied to the wine train," Wingfield countered. "The only thing that really happened here was a phone call to the police for peacekeeping purposes."

Henderson agreed, saying a restaurant segregation case from more than 50 years appears to have "no jurisdiction here."

The officers did not arrest, question or search the women when they stepped off the train, and police are always called any time passengers are asked to leave the train, Wingfield insisted.

"The officers that were called did not board the train," Wingfield said. "They did not order the plaintiffs off the train. They had no involvement whatsoever until the plaintiffs were physically off the train."

McCoy countered that the wine train's security employee who escorted his clients off the train was a "certified peace officer." He also pointed to statements made on the wine train's website and in publications touting its relationship with local police.

"[The police] did no an independent investigation," McCoy said. "The reason for that is because they work jointly with the wine train in removing passengers from the train. They boasted in news articles that they remove passengers from the train once a month."

Wingfield replied that the lawsuit cites no evidence from the wine train's website or news articles, which he argued would not be admissible anyway.

Henderson agreed with Wingfield's point that references to statements from news articles and a website not cited on the record cannot be considered.

McCoy then argued he should be allowed to conduct discovery and interview police officers about their level of participation in removing his clients from the train. However, the judge told McCoy that his clients can tell him whether or not police boarded the train that day - an action the wine train claims never occurred.

Wingfield also asked the judge to toss a claim that the wine train failed to accommodate two plaintiffs - Deborah Neal and Katherine Neal - with physical disabilities. He said the lawsuit lacks specifics on how his client allegedly failed to accommodate the women.

"It does not say what accommodations they requested, or what architectural barriers were in the way, or what remedies needed to be achieved," Wingfield said. "How did my clients discriminate against them based on a disability?"

After first insisting the lawsuit could not be amended to cure those problems, Wingfield acknowledged under pressure from the judge that the women could likely amend their complaint to allege more specific facts on that claim.

Wingfield also argued the law does not allow the women to seek tort remedies and punitive damages for their good faith and fair dealing breach claim against the wine train.

McCoy countered the court can only strike improper and redundant information from a complaint and may not consider legal issues on damages in a motion to strike.

The judge agreed with the wine train that the plaintiffs should amend their complaint to identify which claims apply specifically to which named defendants in the suit.

After about 30 minutes of debate, Henderson ended the hearing and said he would take the arguments on the wine train's motions to strike and dismiss under consideration.

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