Restaurant, disability rights advocates at odds

Velleggia's facing contempt hearing over accessibility

April 16, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Frank and Nazzareno "Naz" Velleggia had served plenty of people in wheelchairs at Velleggia's, their 64-year-old restaurant in Little Italy. No one had ever complained about using a steep concrete ramp to a side service entrance, they said.

"We expect you to clean the dishes," Naz Velleggia remembers joking as he wheeled patrons through the kitchen. "They got a kick out of it."

That changed June 1, 1996, when Roberta Cepko dined at Velleggia's. Cepko says she had to wait as restaurant staff unlocked the side entrance, and her date had to push her up and down the ramp, which has no guardrails and ends in an abrupt 1-inch drop to the street. She soon filed a discrimination complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which enforces disability access laws.

"It's just the simple fact that you don't want to be hassled; you want to be able to get in and out like anybody else," explained Cepko, 42, who estimates she has filed at least 12 discrimination complaints with the commission since 1989.

The case, which has turned into a protracted battle between Velleggia's and the commission, highlights growing friction between disability rights advocates and businesses such as restaurants. State and federal laws promise equal access, advocates say, while critics complain improvements sometimes cost so much that they threaten profitability.

A judge with the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings found in 1998 that Velleggia's had discriminated against Cepko because she could not have entered or exited the restaurant on her own or in a normal amount of time. The judge ordered Velleggia's to install a front-door lift or ramp, an accessible restroom and a lift from the restaurant's bar and smoking area to the main dining level, where the restrooms are.

Two failed appeals and a Circuit Court order later, the Velleggias have not made the required additions. They say they've been waiting for their attorney to negotiate a compromise.

But commission attorney Patricia Wood says the time for compromise is past. In February, Wood filed a petition to cite Velleggia's for contempt. If the brothers can't explain why they haven't complied with the court order at a May 22 hearing, Frank Velleggia, the brother named in the lawsuit, could face jail time.

High-profile discrimination cases have abounded in recent years. National fast-food chains Wendy's and Taco Bell have settled lawsuits with multimillion-dollar upgrades to improve disability access. The Rainbow Room in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center agreed to extensive renovations and paid $40,000 in fines in the face of a 1999 lawsuit. The same year, Little Joe's, a well-known Italian restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown, closed when owners said they couldn't afford disability-related improvements.

Baltimore restaurateur Michael Gettier says he closed his dining room at the former Orchard Inn in 1999 because he couldn't afford to comply with accessibility requirements.

Gettier planned a $250,000 renovation for the Towson building, but when he sought a construction permit, officials handed him a list of improvements he'd have to make to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Several consultants estimated the improvements would have cost about $60,000, Gettier said. Within weeks, he decided to sell the building.

"In the cost-benefit analysis, these improvements are, unfortunately, not always a doable thing," said Gettier, who estimated he had three or four regulars who used wheelchairs. "These requirements are offered without any consideration for the business itself."

Marcia Harris, president of the Maryland Restaurant Association, said she knows of no other restaurants in the state that have shut down because of compliance costs.

As frustrated as some restaurateurs seem, disability rights advocates find it equally galling that state and federal agencies don't enforce accessibility laws more aggressively. The Commission on Human Relations investigates complaints but does not initiate investigations of restaurants or other retail businesses, said spokeswoman Martha Dickey. The Justice Department deals with federal cases in a similar way.

In a report last year to President Bill Clinton, the National Disability Council said its research revealed "that while this administration has consistently asserted its strong support for the civil rights of people with disabilities, the federal agencies charged with enforcement and policy development under ADA, to varying degrees, have been overly cautious, reactive, and lacking any coherent and unifying national strategy."

That criticism dovetails with the Velleggias' contention that they're being singled out.

"Are you telling me that they're on us because one person complained?" Naz Velleggia said. "How is that fair when I could show you plenty of newer places that have even worse problems?"

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