Two American former Walt Disney World Cast Members are suing Disney and Patina Restaurant Group after they were allegedly fired to be replaced with Italian Cast Members at the Italy Pavilion in EPCOT.
Former EPCOT Cast Members Suing Disney, Patina Restaurant Group
The World Showcase pavilions in EPCOT are traditionally populated by international Cast Members as part of Disney’s Cultural Representative Program. The program was suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Until Q-1 and J-1 visa workers could return, Americans and green card holders worked the pavilions instead. The Cultural Representative Program resumed in August 2022.
According to Court Watch, Patina hired Dahyana Cosme and Timothy Gocklin in 2022 to work in the Italy Pavilion, home to the Tutto Italia and Via Napoli restaurants. This year, they were laid off and replaced with Italian Cast Members, who they had to train. The international employees were sponsored by the Cultural Representative Program.
Cosme and Gocklin are suing both Disney Parks and Patina in the Middle District of Florida’s Orlando division. They seek back pay, punitive damages, and other compensation.
Morgan & Morgan filed the lawsuit in May 2023. Disney was not originally a defendant, but they were later added to the case.
Attorneys John Morgan, James Henson, and Matthew Gunter said in a statement, “Our clients’ allegations paint a picture of an intentional and illegal scheme of firing American workers and abusing the Q-1 and J-1 visa systems to replace them. Disney and Patina had plenty of options to handle this situation fairly and legally — for example, by transferring all the American workers to another department or restaurant — but instead allegedly decided to wholesale terminate over 100 workers due to their ethnicity and citizenship status. Operating a cultural exchange program at an internationally-themed park does not absolve Walt Disney World or Patina from their responsibilities to follow all applicable labor laws, and we will hold them accountable for this alleged injustice.”
They continued, “These firings had devastating impacts on dozens of former employees we represent, such as forcing a student to drop out of college and a single mother to move her family across the country to go live with her parents.”
Disney and Patina declined to comment for the Court Watch story. They submitted a Motion to Dismiss the lawsuit in September.
According to Patina, Cosme and Gocklin were only hired as temporary employees. The pair claim in the lawsuit that this was a surprise to them when they read it in their termination letters. Patina also said rolling terminations were determined by seniority.
“Patina operates two restaurants within a cultural exchange program approved by Congress and authorized by the Department of Homeland Security,” Patina stated in court documents. “This program introduces the cultures of other countries to the United States and allows those from other countries to learn about our country.” They argued Cosme and Gocklin “do not allege they could speak Italian or explain Italian customs, traditions, and culture based on their first-hand experience.”
In their Motion to Dismiss, Disney and Patina cited an earlier lawsuit from Anesh Gupta, a Cast Member from India who sued Disney because he was told he could not work in the Norway Pavilion because he was not Norwegian. Disney won that case in 2013.
“The Plaintiffs do not, however, offer one single allegation that they met the requirement of being ‘culturally authentic’ to Italy for purposes of continuing to work as servers at the Italian pavilion at Epcot’s World Showcase,” the Motion to Dismiss reads. “As a result, just as it was not the race, color, or national origin of Gupta that disqualified him from working at the Norway pavilion, it was not the race, color, or national origin that prevented the Plaintiffs from continuing to work at Defendant Patina’s restaurants. Rather, it was the fact that they did not meet the requirements that they be culturally authentic.”
Disney also notes that Cosme and Gocklin were not technically Disney employees, but third-party employees. The original lawsuit argues that they followed Disney rules, wore Disney costumes, and carried Disney ID cards.