A coalition of forty Bronx restaurants filed a $150 million lawsuit against the city of New York on Tuesday, arguing that fines issued by the Department of Health were inconsistent and unfair.
In the suit, the restaurant owners called enforcement of DOH health codes “arbitrary, capricious, and malicious.” The complaint slammed the current system of restaurant inspections as a “revenue scheme” for the city, targeting small businesses that often don’t survive DOH fines.
Under-trained health inspectors are also a source of inconsistency, the owners said. They argued that DOH officials give contradictory instructions to restaurants and have inconsistent interpretations of health code guidelines. In addition to the lack of clear standards for health inspections, restaurant owners claimed that DOH procedures were deliberately confusing.
The DOH can impose fines on restaurants based on violations of health code guidelines, which cover procedures ranging from employees’ use of gloves while handling food to acceptable locations for food storage. As a method of assessment, the DOH assigns letter grades to restaurants based on their compliance with city-wide health codes.
The suit stated that because health code policies do not pass through the City Council, DOH fines violated restaurant owners’ right to due process under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Along with $150 million in damages, the owners are seeking a hold on all fines imposed on them by the DOH until the case is resolved.
Jaslee Carayol, a representative of New York’s Law Department, dismissed the suit as a “rambling, scattershot attack” on the city’s health policies. She pointed to city-wide improvement in DOH letter grades as an indication of the success of health policies.
The case will be heard at the New York State Supreme Court as Board of Health Public Review Committee v. New York City Department of Health.