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Obituary: Patricia Gail Price -- attorney in case against Denny's

Monday, June 19, 2006

Patricia "Patty" Gail Price, an attorney in the landmark racial discrimination case against Denny's restaurants, died Thursday in her San Leandro home after a three-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 54.

During the 1990s, Ms. Price directed the nonprofit Public Interest Law Firm in San Jose and built a reputation as a dogged advocate for social justice. In 1992, after 18 black youths were subjected to a discriminatory policy at a Denny's in San Jose, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sought her out.

The students had been made to prepay for their meals and pay a $2 cover charge, while their white friends were not. The case grew into a national class-action lawsuit and resulted in the largest settlement of its kind at the time, with Denny's agreeing to pay $46 million in 1994.

"Patty was a very tough attorney. She did not back down," said Amanda Ruiz, who worked with Ms. Price on the Denny's case. "Patty lived her life to effect change and to give a voice to people who otherwise had no voice, whether high school kids discriminated by a culture of racism at Denny's or prisoners being abused in jails."

Ms. Price was born in Detroit but spent most of her childhood in Denver. Ms. Price was influenced by her mother's Catholic faith and was drawn toward helping the poor and marginalized. As a child, she watched her mother welcome homeless people into their house and feed them.

After graduating from Bishop Machebeuf Catholic High School, Ms. Price attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she became an activist for women's rights who spoke out on campus against sexual violence. She was one of seven lesbian students arrested at a Sheraton Hotel in 1973 for dancing with each other at a social event and refusing to leave when other patrons were offended.

"She was a very early lesbian and gay rights advocate," said Teresa Friend, her partner of 15 years. "Throughout her whole life, she was never been afraid to take a stand. She was a person who didn't know fear."

Ms. Price graduated from University of Denver's law school in 1976 and worked for legal aid organizations helping domestic violence victims in Colorado. She moved to the Bay Area in 1988, eventually becoming the directing attorney of the Public Interest Law Firm. The small firm flourished under Ms. Price, losing only one case during her seven years there, according to Ruiz.

In addition to the Denny's case, Ms. Price helped win settlements for AIDS patients refused care by dentists, Cambodian immigrants living in squalor in San Jose apartment complexes, and physically disabled prisoners in Santa Clara County jails.

She led two lawsuits against Santa Clara County in the early 1990s for inhumane conditions at its shelter for abused children. Publicity from the suits pushed the county to mount one of the region's largest fundraising campaigns in history, netting $12 million to build a new shelter.

She also served as an umpire and coach in community softball leagues and hoped to retire next year so she could devote her time to sports officiating, Friend said.

Even after she became too ill to walk and coach one daughter's softball team, she continued to attend the games and shout commands from her wheelchair in the dugout.

In addition to her partner, Ms. Price is survived by her daughters Lindsay and Aimee, both of San Leandro; and her brother Jim of Denver.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

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