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Detroit — Former Detroit Lions Hall-of-Famer Lem Barney and his wife are suing a Metro Detroit pizza chain, alleging they were refused service for racial reasons.

The lawsuit filed in Detroit’s federal court Monday said Lem and Jacqueline Barney went to Happy’s Pizza in Commerce Township at 2163 N. Pontiac Trail on Nov. 2. When they tried to order, the suit alleges, the manager told them to go to Happy’s Southfield location because “they would be more at home there.”

The Barneys are black. Southfield has a majority-black population and Commerce Township is mostly white.

"It was a thinly veiled message that they are not wanted," said Jim Acho, the Barneys' lawyer. "Their excuse doesn’t fly."

Sherrie Handrinos, a corporate spokeswoman for the Farmington Hills-based pizza chain, said the Commerce Township location turned away the Barneys because it was not officially open after the store closed in July for remodeling. It reopened under new ownership on Nov. 6, she said.

Handrinos said the site was holding a soft opening for friends and family of employees and those from the corporate office to try the food.

"Happy’s Pizza does not discriminate against or refuse service to patrons under
any circumstances on the basis of race, gender or religion," Handrinos said. "We are deeply saddened by Mr. and Mrs. Barney’s accusations of racial
discrimination. We take these accusations very seriously and will do everything in our power to clear up the confusion surrounding them."

The lawsuit claims the Barneys calledpolice and when the officer arrived, the restaurant manager said the Barneys were denied service because workers were preparing for a corporate catering event.

According to the lawsuit, the officer told the couple that he believed they "were refused service solely on the basis of race."

Handrinos said the manager spoke with police on the phone. The doors were open as employees and contractors went in and out of the building, doing food and equipment testing and preparing the store for opening.

"No one was a customer," Handrinos said. "No one was purchasing food. Not one sale was made that day to anyone."

Handrinos said roughly 30 patrons entered the store to attempt to buy food on Nov. 2; she released a photo of the store's sales activity system, which she said showed the first sales for the store begin on Nov. 6.

After speaking with employees at the location, Handrinos said she was told that no one recommended that customers go to the Southfield store. Instead, she said, customers were directed to the two geographically closest locations that were open in Farmington Hills and Pontiac.

"We'd love to send out a gift card to Mr. Barney and his wife," Handrinos said. "Happy's Pizza never turns a customer away. We would love to give them a gift card or delivery to their house."

She added that Happy's Pizza, a Detroit-born brand, has supported many foundations and causes of organizations and professional athletes in Detroit.

Acho, the Barneys' lawyer, said the couple saw people going in and out of the building, smelled food cooking, saw a white woman eating and did not see a closed sign on the store. He called for the company to release security footage from the day.

"I don't buy it," he said. "Why does the story keep changing? At one point they said they were renovating. Another time they said this was a dry run. A third time they were preparing for a corporate event. Which is it? The stories aren’t consistent."

Acho said the couple does not want a gift card and is not seeking any particular amount in damages.

"I didn't even mention in the lawsuit that Lem is a pro football Hall-of-Famer," he said. "Would this have been acceptable if he was a plumber or worked on an assembly line? I don't know if certain people feel emboldened today. I'm certainly not going to sit by and let it happen. I just don't think it should be tolerated in a civilized society."

The lawsuit is the latest charge of controversy related to race in the pizza industry. Papa John’s founder John Schnatter resigned his chairmanship from the publicly traded company in July after a recording of the pizza mogul using a racial slur was leaked to the media.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

bnoble@detroitnews.com

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