Press Release

Philadelphia Settles Discrimination Lawsuit with Chinese Restaurant Owners for $265,000; Formally Agrees Not to Enforce Disputed City Ordinance

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The City of Philadelphia has reached an agreement with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) to settle a lawsuit over the City’s 11 P.M. Ordinance. AALDEF, with pro bono counsel Pepper Hamilton LLP, filed this lawsuit, Liu v. City of Philadelphia, on behalf of 23 Chinese takeout restaurant owners for unconstitutional discriminatory intent and enforcement of this Ordinance.

Under the 11 P.M. Ordinance, businesses on residential blocks in Philadelphia had to close between 11 P.M. and 6 A.M. In practice, the Philadelphia Police Department enforced this Ordinance inconsistently, and Chinese restaurant owners have paid the price. In many cases, officers even repeatedly ticketed Chinese restaurants on commercial blocks that are not subject to the 11 P.M. Ordinance.

Since filing this lawsuit in November 2018, the plaintiffs have worked with the City to reach a negotiated agreement. As a result of this settlement, the City of Philadelphia has formally agreed not to enforce the 11 P.M. Ordinance, and to further train the Philadelphia Police Department about implicit bias, as well as effective communication with limited English proficient (LEP) community members, such as these Chinese restaurant owners. The City will compensate the group of plaintiffs with a total of $265,000.

Margaret Fung, AALDEF Executive Director, said: “We are glad that the City of Philadelphia has agreed not to enforce this problematic 11 P.M. Ordinance. We are also pleased to have secured some compensation for the hardship and indignity experienced by this group of immigrant small business owners with limited resources, little political power, and the additional challenges of limited English proficiency.”

Years of 11 P.M. Ordinance tickets have revealed a pattern of overwhelming selective enforcement against Chinese restaurant owners. In 2016, Philadelphia Councilman David Oh requested information about the 11 P.M. Ordinance tickets. With the limited data available at that time, Councilman Oh’s office compiled an extensive report estimating that around 96% of tickets in fiscal year (FY) 2015 and 85% in FY 2016 were likely issued to Chinese restaurant owners. AALDEF’s subsequent research (with the benefit of images of actual tickets from this period) indicates the percentages are even higher: at least 97.5% of tickets in FY 2015 and 94.9% in FY 2016 were issued to either a Chinese restaurant or someone with a Chinese name. Based on AALDEF’s updated analysis, encompassing more than 1,000 tickets issued during the four fiscal years since 2015, at least 96.5% of 11 P.M. Ordinance tickets were issued to Chinese restaurant owners.

A survey of other Philadelphia businesses on residential blocks shows that many of these businesses, including dozens of pizza takeout restaurants, have stayed open past 11 P.M. without receiving any tickets during the four years studied. Some of these restaurants were even on the same streets or blocks as the Chinese restaurants that had received tickets.

Jerry Vattamala, AALDEF Democracy Program Director, said: “Shame on the City of Philadelphia for discriminating against these Chinese restaurant owners who were just trying to earn a living. Because of the 11 P.M. Ordinance, many faced persistent harassment, paid significant fines, moved, or even closed their businesses entirely—all while nearby non-Chinese restaurants stayed open late without consequence.”

Ling Lin, a plaintiff who was forced to close her Chinese restaurant and move because of the 11 P.M. Ordinance, said: “We are so happy to get a good result in this case. Chinese restaurant owners just want fair enforcement of laws. We are often treated like foreigners in our own neighborhoods, but we just want to be treated like part of the community. And we don’t want anything like this to happen again to anyone or any other group.”

Patricia Yan, AALDEF Democracy Program Attorney, said: “There are striking parallels between this case and Yick Wo v. Hopkins, a landmark 1886 Supreme Court case that also involved nearly exclusive enforcement of a city regulation against Chinese immigrants—in that case, Chinese laundry workers. The Supreme Court saw that even if discrimination was not built into the language of a law, it could still take the more insidious form of selective enforcement that was at the root of this 11 P.M. Ordinance, as well as today’s broader problem of racial profiling in law enforcement. These are difficult issues to tackle, but this settlement is a step in the right direction.”

Vattamala said: “While we hope there will be no further selective enforcement against Chinese Americans in Philadelphia, we are aware of a proposed amendment to the Ordinance that would likely further target Chinese restaurant owners. Given the history behind the passage of the current 11 P.M. Ordinance—which includes public statements from community members and even City Council members that disparaged or singled out Chinese restaurants—AALDEF will continue to monitor potential future legislation and will be ready to respond and take action, including potential legal action, to continue to protect this community.”

Jeremy Frey of Pepper Hamilton said: “This a huge victory for the Chinese Americans whose businesses have been hurt by this Ordinance. I hope all Philadelphians can celebrate this achievement and continue making Philadelphia a diverse and inclusive city.”

For more information about the lawsuit, a copy of the complaint can be downloaded here. A copy of the settlement agreement can be found here.

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For more information, contact:
Patricia Yan, Democracy Program Attorney
212.966.5932 x207