Eatery health grade revolt

Bronx eateries hope a judge gives an F to the city Health Department’s restaurant letter grading system.

They’ll have their day in court July 11th, having filed a $150 million class action lawsuit against DOH in Manhattan Supreme Court.

They’re now demanding a temporary restraining order at the July 11 court date against the collection of heavy fines imposed by health inspectors during surprise visits as the case proceeds.

Nearly 40 restaurateurs have joined the suit claiming the fines are unconstitutional since the grading system was enacted by the Board of Health and not the City Council.

They also find the policy unfairly issue violations that go beyond DOH’s purview. The system then slaps restaurants with an A, B or C grade based on information collected during surprise inspections.

Much of the frustration lies in how arbitrary inspections can be, said Rosetta Lawless, co-owner of the Shamrock Inn in Pelham Bay for 17 years.

“No two inspectors are exactly the same,” said Lawless, these days on pins and needles whenever inspectors drop by unannounced.

Some violations she’s faced and fought ranged from found mice droppings, mishandling a food themometer and a lost letter grade decal.

While she was able to win some, she’s lost others, which have forced her to shell out thousands in fines ever since the Board of Health enacted the policy in 2009.

She contends much of the infractions have nothing to do with food safety, as indicated in a recent report showing roughly 30% of DOH violations are unrelated to food handling.

“They just go out on a daily basis and get as much money as they can, and nobody fights back,” she said.

Lawless and a dozen other restaurant owners joined the Board of Health Public Review Committee last fall to mull the lawsuit. Neil Grimaldi is the attorney representing the case.

Group leader and fellow eatery owner Egidio Sementilli of Mamma Lucia’s restaurant in Locust Point argues the grading system is a well-cloaked cash cow against owners.

“This is a revenue scheme,” charged Sementilli, outraged the Board of Health was the body responsible for enforcing the policy, not the City Council.

There are eleven members on the board, appointed by the mayor with consent from the City Council.

“We want the legislative authority be given back to the City Council,” said Sementilli, who’s been recruiting additonal members to join the lawsuit.

“A lot of people don’t want to join because they’re intimidated,” said Sementilli. “I guess I’ll be the sacrificial lamb.”

A Law Department spokeswoman calling the lawsuit a “rambling, scattershot attack on the City’s regulation of food service establishments…”

“The grading program has led to cleaner kitchens, with more than 80 percent now earning A grades,” said the spokeswoman.

David Cruz can be reach via e-mail at or by phone at (718) 742-3383

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