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    Local C-Store Association Accused of Discrimination

    Independents allege Asian retailers receive benefits they can't get, but ARA denies charges.

    By Mehgan Belanger

    ATLANTA -- According to the complaint filed with the Superior Court of Fulton County, Ga., and obtained by CSNews Online, three Atlanta area c-stores -- Wilson's Grocery, Potts Grocery and Henderson's Grocery -- have filed a class action suit against a local convenience store association for "unlawful discrimination on the basis of race."

    The plaintiffs say they were illegally denied membership in the Atlanta Retailers Association (ARA), and thus unable to qualify for discounts on beverages made available to those members by Pepsi Cola Bottling Group (Pepsi), which was also named in the suit.

    The ARA denied the allegations in the suit, while a lawyer for Pepsi declined to comment and referred questions to Pepsi's headquarters in New York.

    According to the complaint: "ARA discriminatorily refuses to permit non-Asian convenience store owners to join ARA." Pepsi allegedly provides discounts amounting to $3 per case to those members.

    In addition, the plaintiffs claim Pepsi agreed to provide the members of ARA with a $1,000 rebate on Pepsi products provided by the company.

    The ARA denies any allegations of racial discrimination. "Our position on behalf of ARA is the allegations are false. The ARA does not discriminate on basis of race, and we look forward to opportunity to prove those allegations false," said David Marmins, lawyer for the ARA, and partner in the Atlanta-based firm Balch and Bingham.

    According to the group's lawyer, the ARA membership is within its legal rights to limit membership to Ismaili Muslims, a sect of the Muslim religion. The ARA represents 900 businesses owned or managed by Ismaili Muslims, according to Marmins. "The group … is an organization of c-stores owned by a religious community, which does not violate federal laws," he said.

    Further, the ARA Web site states: "The association is comprised of persons who came together as a result of having a common faith and who own or operate convenience stores in the region."

    As part of the membership to the ARA, members must "agree to abide by the rules and regulations of the ARA, failing which the ARA board of directors can terminate the membership," according to the group's application.

    The rules and regulations, or bylaws, also determine eligibility to the group, according to Marmins. He told CSNews Online the requirement that members are Ismaili Muslims is located in the bylaws, which is present on the association's Web site. When CSNews Online tried to view the bylaws on the site, the link was not functioning. A request to the association's president, Afroz Painter, and Marmins for a copy of the bylaws was unreturned as of press time.

    The suit began after Terry Wilson, owner of Wilson's Grocery, located in Covington, Ga., learned from a distributor representative that members of the ARA receive discounts on Pepsi beverages. Wilson sought the same discounts through his Pepsi representative, but said he was denied because the discounts were strictly for the association, he told CSNews Online.

    "At that point, I said 'okay, they are the Atlanta Retailer Association, anyone can join and get in on the deal.' I went up there are tried to apply, and they refused my application. Then I asked them point blank why, they said it was strictly an Asian group -- I didn't argue with them, I just left and then got an attorney," he said.

    Wilson said that there was no indication from the ARA's Web site, application or available guidelines that the group was limited to Asian members.

    The other two plaintiffs in the case -- John Potts, owner of Potts Grocery; and a business called Henderson's Grocery -- are Wilson's peers. "There are very few American-owned stores and I knew Potts and Henderson. I got to conversing with them, and they said their Pepsi prices went up too."

    Marmins declined to comment on Wilson's membership. Also, the lawyer for Pepsi, Jim Coil, of Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Stockton LLP, declined to comment on the case and instead referred CSNews Online to Pepsi's headquarters in Somers, N.Y. A call there for comment was unreturned by press time.

    "Mainly all I wanted out of this, in the beginning, is if Pepsi was going to strike deals they should make it for everyone to get in on the same type of thing," said Wilson, noting that Pepsi did send a letter to him about discounts with a separate group, but it "wasn’t even close" to the discounts with the ARA.

    "It wasn't about the money, it's about being treated fairly, there's so many of us 'mom and pop stores,' as I call them here, and it's hard to compete when there's that type of competition against us. You can't compete," Wilson concluded.

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