By Daniel Wiessner
(Reuters) - A federal judge in Chicago on Tuesday refused to dismiss a lawsuit accusing McDonald's Corp of pushing out a Black executive after he criticized CEO Chris Kempczinski for appearing to blame the parents of a girl shot in a McDonald's drive-thru for her death.
U.S. District Judge Linsday Jenkins said that while plaintiff Michael Peaster did not explicitly mention race during a 2021 meeting with Kempczinski and other company officers, the context surrounding his comments made clear that he was addressing racially charged conduct.
"It is reasonable to infer that Peaster was attempting to speak up for African American employees," Jenkins wrote.
Jenkins denied a motion by McDonald's and Kempczinski to dismiss Peaster's race discrimination and retaliation claims. The judge did dismiss claims that McDonald's had created a hostile work environment and intentionally caused Peaster emotional distress.
McDonald's did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Carmen Caruso, a lawyer for Peaster, said he looks forward to bringing the surviving claims to trial.
Kempczinski in 2021 sent text messages to then-Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot referencing the shooting of a 7-year-old girl at a Chicago McDonald's and another shooting of a child in the city. "With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can't say," Kempczinski wrote, according to court filings.
Kempczinski later publicly apologized and said the texts “reveal my narrow worldview that I have to work hard to correct."
At a 2021 meeting at McDonald's corporate headquarters, Peaster, the company's vice president of global safety, security, and intelligence, said Kempczinski's response to the incident had been insufficient.
According to the lawsuit, Peaster at the meeting said that "we have to have empathy and compassion for the majority of families who live in tough communities," among other comments.
Peaster claims that following the meeting, Kempczinski and other executives retaliated against him by refusing to meet with him and making it impossible for him to do his job. He was ultimately fired last November for alleged performance issues, according to his lawsuit.
Peaster is seeking damages for the loss of his job and emotional distress, along with punitive damages.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bill Berkrot)