Law Firm Was a “Place of Public Accommodation”, but Discrimination Claim Dismissed

In Petty v. The Law Office of Robert P. Santoriella, P.C., No. 155468/2015, 2020 WL 7011753, 2020 N.Y. Slip Op. 33908(U) (N.Y. Sup Ct, N.Y. Cty. Nov. 25, 2020), the court dismissed plaintiff’s public accommodation discrimination claims under the New York State and City Human Rights Laws.

In sum, plaintiff – a prospective client of defendant law firm – alleged that defendants discriminated against her “in a public accommodation based on her gender by rationalizing that the legal representation of her was dependent on her submission to [defendant]’s sexual advances.”

The court summarized the “public accommodation” concept under the state law:

Under this statute, “it shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person, being the owner, lessee, proprietor, manager, superintendent, agent or employee of any place of public accommodation, resort or amusement, because of the . . . sex . . . of any person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from or deny to such person any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges thereof . . . or that the patronage or custom thereat of any person or purporting to be of any particular . . . sex . . . is unwelcome, objectionable or not acceptable, desired or solicited[.]”

A public accommodation is an establishment that deals with the goods or services of any kind, such as dental offices because they provide services to the public even if they may be conducted on private premises and by appointment, as such places are generally open to the public (Cahill v Rosa, 89 NY2d 14, 21 [1996]). The definition of “place” has been interpreted broadly and has been construed as a term of convenience and not a limitation, which “need not be a fixed location, it is the place where [defendants] do what they do,” but was still interpreted to be a location where the defendants met and activities occurred (U.S. Power Squadrons v State Human Rights Appeal Bd., 59 NY2d 401, 411 [1983]). **4 This definition has been expanded even further to include establishments that provide goods and services to individuals without access to any particular place, similar to home delivery services or services performed in the customer’s home, and even includes websites (Andrews v Blick Art Materials, LLC, 268 F Supp 3d 381, 400 [ED NY 2017]). Given such a broad interpretation, it seems that a [l]aw firm can generally be considered a place of public accommodation.

Although defendant’s firm qualified as a place of public accommodation, “Plaintiff failed to allege that Defendants withheld from or denied her ‘any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges’ that the law firm provides, and also failed to show that her patronage was ‘unwelcome, objectionable or not acceptable, desired or solicited.'”

Plaintiff’s claim also failed under the similarly-worded, yet more-broadly-interpreted, New York City Human Rights Law, finding that plaintiff’s allegations did not meet the statutory requirements.

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