(Reuters) - Darden Restaurants Inc was sued on Thursday by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which accused the company of age discrimination in hiring for its Seasons 52 restaurants nationwide.
In a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court in Miami, the EEOC said it is "standard operating procedure" for Darden, which also runs the Olive Garden chain, and four Florida affiliates to disproportionately deny jobs at new Seasons 52 restaurants to applicants aged 40 and above, violating the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
The EEOC said this discrimination has since 2010 reached to front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house jobs, and results from a centralized hiring process designed to maintain Seasons 52's "casually sophisticated" setting.
"Defendants' hiring officials have told unsuccessful applicants in the protected age group that: 'you are too experienced'; 'we are looking for people with less experience'; 'we are not looking for old white guys'; 'we are looking for "fresh" employees'; and that Seasons 52 wanted a 'youthful' image," the complaint said.
The lawsuit seeks a halt to any age discrimination, damages for people denied jobs because of their age, and improved training for managers and supervisors.
In a statement, Darden said it had fully investigated the allegations and found them unsubstantiated. "We deny the allegations," spokesman Rich Jeffers said. "We are proud of our commitment to diversity, and the EEOC's claims are inconsistent with our business philosophy and the manner in which we operate. We will defend this claim vigorously."
Darden has more than 40 locations of Seasons 52 in 18 U.S. states, according to its website.
The Orlando, Florida-based company also runs the LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Capital Grille, Eddie V's and Yard House chains, as well as Olive Garden. These chains are not part of the EEOC lawsuit.
Thursday's lawsuit was filed on behalf of Hugh Alfaro and Anthony Scornavacca, who claim to have been illegally denied jobs in October 2010, when they were respectively 49 and 52, at a Seasons 52 in Coral Gables, Florida.
According to its website, Seasons 52 emphasizes seasonal ingredients and rustic cooking, with no menu item having more than 475 calories.
The case is EEOC v. Darden Restaurants Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, No. 15-20561.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Matthew Lewis