%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:; AUDIO:%)

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ A Waffle House franchisee has reached an agreement to dismiss a $275 million racial discrimination federal lawsuit filed against it last year by four blacks, company officials say.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Curtis Bowe III, confirmed the settlement on Tuesday but would only say the terms were confidential.

The case gained national media attention when plaintiff Steve Berry videotaped himself being turned away from a Tullahoma Waffle House, about 55 miles northwest of Chattanooga, at 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 18, 2001.

The videotape shows Waffle House employees closing the 24-hour restaurant's front door as Berry and others approach. The employees then tape a sign to the glass that reads, ``Closed due to Maintenance'' and white patrons still inside the 42-seat restaurant are visible.

Berry and the three other plaintiffs charged that the Waffle House restaurant had treated blacks similarly on two previous weekends.

The franchisee, Nashville-based Southeast Waffles LLC, had denied that race was a factor in the closures.

The company, which filed a countersuit against the four plaintiffs, said seven black customers were being served at the time of Berry's taping.

Southeast Waffles, which has franchisees and operates 116 Waffle House restaurants in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, said the restaurant was temporarily locked during the times in question in order to control patrons that were trying to enter after local bars had closed.

Tullahoma police had suggested the restaurant close for a few hours ``in order to avert these dangerous public safety situations,'' according to court documents.

Company officials said the four plaintiffs acknowledged that a pretrial investigation showed no evidence of racial bias by Southeast Waffles.

``We're very pleased with the outcome of this case,'' Jim Shaub, owner of Southeast Waffles, said in a statement. ``We feel vindicated and are happy to put this incident behind us.''

___

On the Net:

www.wafflehouse.com