Seven chasidic-owned stores in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, sued by the city for posting signs requesting modest dress by customers, settled this week with the city just prior to trial. The city’s Human Rights Commission dropped its request for $75,000 in collective fines (up from the original fines of under $5,000) in exchange for new modesty signs that clarified that all individuals would be “welcome to enter the stores free from discrimination.”
The original signs declared: “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut necklines allowed in store.” The suit, first brought in August 2012, charged that the signs discriminated against women and on the basis of religion, though there was no evidence that any person was actually denied service.
Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, said “the seven small businesses of Lee Avenue have been vindicated. It was an outrage for this case to be brought in the first place and even more shocking that as recently as this morning, the New York City Human Rights Commission had the chutzpah to try and impose a $75,000 fine against local businesses who did nothing wrong. If you go to a upscale restaurant in New York City there is a dress code, yet when small businesses in Williamsburg do the same, they are attacked and threatened with fines that would put them out of business.” The Satmar stores were supported in the suit by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which helped obtain pro bono counsel from the firm Kirkland and Ellis.
Human Rights Commissioner Patricia Gatling said the commission “is satisfied that the store owners understand their obligations” under the city’s human rights law.
The storekeepers’ lawyer, Jay Lefkowitz, told The Jewish Week, “We offered this [deal] six months ago.” The city had been holding out for the hefty fines but the court reportedly advised the city to settle for just the revised wording on the signs.
“This was a good resolution,” said Lefkowitz. The chasidic storekeepers “are free now to do everything that other storekeepers and restaurant owners in New York are allowed to do. That’s good, because it looked like [the Human Rights Commission] was targeting the Jewish community.”