Salon owners’ federal lawsuit claim discrimination, racial profiling by state board

The state board that polices hair and nail salons in Louisiana is being accused in a federal court lawsuit of racial profiling and discriminating against salons owned by Vietnamese and Asian Americans.

But the state Board of Cosmetology, which says it does not collect or maintain information regarding the nationality of licensees, contends the suit’s allegations are completely unfounded.

The owners or former owners of nine salons in seven southeast Louisiana parishes — including East and West Baton Rouge, Ascension and Lafayette — claim cosmetology board inspectors are targeting Vietnamese- and Asian-owned salons for inspections and violations.

“Plaintiffs are subjected to disproportionate and heightened inspections … as compared to non-Vietnamese and non-Asian salon owners,” alleges Ryan Beasley, an attorney with the Cao Law Firm in Harvey, in the suit filed Feb. 6 in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge.

Former U.S. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress, started that firm several years ago.

“There is obviously some sort of racial profiling that’s going on,” Cao said Thursday. “Something onerous is going on with the cosmetology board.”

The suit complains of cosmetology board conduct dating back to February 2011 and notes that the cosmetology board held hearings Oct. 7 and Dec. 9, and the agendas for violation hearings on those days were “filled with Vietnamese- and Asian-Americans.”

“Not even one non-Vietnamese or non-Asian was heard in regards to any alleged violations” at either meeting, the suit states. “This was not a coincidence.”

The nine named plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking to have the suit certified as a class action on behalf of similarly situated individuals.

In a written statement issued Thursday through its attorney, Sheri Morris, the cosmetology board called the suit “an attempt to keep the Board from inspecting their salons and enforcing state laws and regulations for the protection of the public health and safety.”

The board is required by law to inspect licensed salons twice a year. It also inspects salons to investigate complaints and when there is a change of ownership. The board said it is aware that many manicuring salon licenses have been issued to individuals of Vietnamese descent.

“The Board has for many years contracted with Vietnamese language interpreters to assist licensees, who cannot speak English fluently, during hearings. Additionally, the Board administers the national examination in Vietnamese,” the statements reads.

Cao claims he was forbidden from speaking Vietnamese to a client, not fluent in English, during a cosmetology board meeting last fall. He said he wrote a letter to the board complaining about the incident.

Eight of the plaintiffs are current salon owners. The only former owner, Hanh Hoang, ran Aloha Nail 2 in East Baton Rouge Parish for more than two years before selling it in late 2012. A cosmetology board inspector, after allegedly humiliating Hoang in front of her patrons during a surprise inspection in the spring 2012, cited her for $3,000-plus in violation fees.

“Ms. Hoang has been subjected to numerous inspections since the opening of her store which she believes were made predominantly, if not solely, because she is Vietnamese,” the suit states. “Ms. Hoang could no longer take the unpredictable and frequent inspections and had to sell her salon business to escape from LSBC inspectors’ harassment and discrimination.”

The other salons identified in the suit are Magic Nails & Spa, in Prairieville; Nu Nails & Spa, Gonzales; Happy Nails, Port Allen; Exotic Nails and Elegant Nail No. 2, both in Lafayette; Diamond Nails, Opelousas; Beauty Nails, Jeanerette; and Visible Nail, Breaux Bridge.

“In the case of Exotic Nails, the inspectors never inspected the salon next door owned by a Caucasian and its employees have never been subjected to harassment, intimidation or false imprisonment by Board inspectors,” the suit alleges.

During a two-hour inspection July 19, inspectors prevented Exotic Nails owner Thoa Thi Nguyen and her employees from leaving the store on Johnson Street in Lafayette, the suit says.

Mai Thi Nguyen bought Nu Nails & Spa in August from Thu Nguyen, who had operated the store in violation of LSBC regulations and state laws prior to selling it.

Mai Nguyen’s September application for a manicuring license for the business was delayed for months because the cosmetology board believed she had obtained the business by means of fraud, misrepresentation or concealment of the truth, the suit alleges.

At the conclusion of a December hearing on her application, the board found Mai Nguyen did not know Thu Nguyen prior to the sale of the business and Mai Nguyen lawfully bought the store from Thu Nguyen.

Soon after, the board granted her application with several conditions.

“She suffered substantial loss of lease rent and profits due to the LSBC’s prolonged delay of her business application,” the suit claims.

The suit seeks damages and a court order that the board institute a program to retrain board members, inspectors and attorneys.

The case has been assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson.

The cosmetology board has licensed roughly 7,000 salons, and about 1,000 of them are manicuring salons.