Former French Market director loses lawsuit alleging he was discriminated against for being white _lowres

Frank Pizzolato

A federal judge has dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed almost two years ago by former French Market Corp. Director Frank Pizzolato, who claimed he was forced to resign from his position because the agency’s governing board wanted to replace him with an African-American.

In dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan cited the fact that Pizzolato was ultimately replaced by another white man, Jon Smith.

Pizzolato can appeal Berrigan’s decision. Neither he nor his attorney immediately responded to requests for comment.

The dispute began when Pizzolato told board members in 2012 that he had discovered one of the French Market Corp.’s tenants, Montrel’s Bistro, was allowing the agency to unwittingly pay for the restaurant’s electricity bills. Under the terms of the restaurant’s lease, Montrel’s was supposed to have transferred the electricity account to its own name, but it never did so, according to Pizzolato.

In his lawsuit, Pizzolato claimed that two African-American board members told him that the French Market Corp. “needed to take care of” Montrel’s because it was a black-owned business, while Pizzolato insisted that the arrangement was illegal, amounting to theft and a violation of the state’s ban on donating public property.

The French Market Corp., which oversees the historic French Market and the nearby Upper Pontalba Building, is a quasi-independent city agency.

Pizzolato said he then resigned after the board told him that he would be fired if he didn’t step down.

He sued in December 2013, alleging that the French Market Corp. had forced him out “because of his race ... and also in retaliation for his complaints of workplace ... practices in violation of state law.”

Although the French Market Corp. subsequently offered Pizzolato’s job to an African-American woman, negotiations broke down over the proposed salary, and a white man — Smith — got the position.

In support of her decision, Berrigan wrote that Smith’s hiring demonstrated that the board wasn’t prejudiced.

She also ruled that “mere verbal threats to fire an employee alone do not make working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable employee would feel forced into involuntary resignation.”

Berrigan rejected Pizzolato’s assertion that he was retaliated against for exposing criminal allegations. She said Louisiana’s whistleblower statute would apply only if the French Market Corp. was accused of doing something illegal. In this case, Pizzolato accused Montrel’s of committing theft by using electricity for which it hadn’t paid.

Berrigan added that Louisiana’s ban on donating public property doesn’t apply to agencies like the French Market Corp., which is not a full-fledged government body.

French Market Corp. attorney Henry Julien praised Berrigan’s decision as “the correct one.”