Our New York restaurant lawyers know, however, that the blue “A,” green “B” and orange “C” grades were not truly reflective of reality. Inspectors have gained a reputation as fickle and inconsistent. The appellate process often skews in favor of inspectors, and fines are frequently outsized in comparison to the alleged violation.
Finally, the New York City Council moved to alter the grading system to allow for a significant reduction in fines and more opportunities for restaurants to appeal financial penalties for violations. Officials have estimated that if these New York restaurant grading changes are passed, the amount of fines collected will decrease by nearly 25 percent.
The changes still need the stamp of approval from the Board of Health. But that appears a much more promising prospect than a few years ago when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg was quoted as saying that restaurant owners were only complaining because they didn’t want to keep their establishments clean.
It’s true that there has been some good to come out of the stricter standards. Instances of salmonella have fallen roughly 15 percent in the last few years, and the city’s new health commissioner was quick to point out that fewer mice and rats are being discovered during restaurant inspections.
Certainly, restaurant owners who don’t make sanitation a priority have been hit hard – and that’s not a bad thing. The problem is how many good businesses have gone down alongside them.
In the last year, fines for Department of Health violations totaled an eye-popping $40 million. That’s actually a reduction from what we saw in 2012, when the amount collected topped $52 million. This is for businesses that are in some cases scraping by, and many of these violations were for relatively minor offenses. Additionally, it’s hard to fix a problem when a health inspector is extremely vague about the standards to which you must adhere – which has often been the case.
Small business owners are the lifeblood of this city, and it’s imperative that the city balance their well-being with the maintenance of safety standards.
Per the new proposed guidelines, a restaurant that gets a “B” or “C” grade on its initial inspection would be allowed to circumvent financial penalties if they can show on appeal that those violations have been corrected. Under the current system, owners usually have to pay at least a $400 penalty, even if some of those supposed violations were rescinded upon further review.
Additionally, the new rules would slash the amount of fines for certain types of violations. Also, business owners will be granted the opportunity to correct violations dealing with structural issues. An example might be a hand-washing sink that’s located too far from the food preparation zone.
We fully recognize that the city’s health administrators have an important job to do, and they are often tasked with making tough calls. Those who egregiously and repeatedly violate health codes need to face the consequences. However, the current system is too frequently punitive in a way that serves to crush businesses that make an occasional minor error.
While the health board mulls the decision, restaurants fighting back against a citation should contact an experienced restaurant lawyer.
The Wright Law Firm is a business law firm located in Midtown Manhattan. Call (212) 619-1500 for a confidential consultation.