A Baton Rouge federal judge said Tuesday he is greatly troubled by allegations that state cosmetology board inspectors detain employees of Vietnamese-American nail salons during inspections of their facilities.
The racial discrimination and false imprisonment allegations were first raised by nail salon owners in a February 2014 lawsuit that attorneys for the Louisiana State Board of Cosmetology on Tuesday asked Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson to dismiss.
Jackson took the arguments from the board's attorneys and former U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, who represents the nail salon owners, under advisement and said he expects to issue a ruling before the end of the month.
Cao, who charged during the hearing that Vietnamese-American nail salons are inspected with greater frequency than white-owned salons and are mistreated by board inspectors, alleged that two cosmetology board inspectors came to Exotic Nails in Lafayette on July 19, 2013, shouted for everyone to keep still and not move, and prevented owner Thoa Nguyen and her employees from leaving for the next two hours.
Cao said the owner and workers were treated "like criminals."
Thomas Peak, one of the board's attorneys, told the judge that two individuals fled the salon through a rear door during the inspection. Peak argued the board can't conduct its license verification duties "if people are fleeing out the back door."
But Jackson pointed out there are hundreds of regulatory agencies in the United States, and few have the authority to order people to remain at a facility during an inspection.
"No one here has been accused of any crime," the judge said, adding that even if the opposite were true, the temporary detention of nail salon employees would not be justified.
Jackson said he doesn't quarrel with the need for strict regulation of nail salons, but detaining salon employees "just seems to be a violation of the U.S. Constitution."
"That is a very troubling aspect of the board's policies," he continued, saying it would be wise for the board to rethink that practice.
Peak assured the judge there are no "Gestapo tactics" at play in the board's regulation and inspection of nail salons.
Cao, in an interview outside Jackson's courtroom after the hearing, disagreed with Peak's statement.
"The last time I was under such a regime it was called communism, and I escaped that," said the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress.
During the hearing, Peak argued, "There is no evidence, not one scintilla of evidence, that these plaintiffs have been discriminated against because they are Vietnamese."
Jackson, referring to evidence submitted in the case, said 9 percent of the 7,500 total salons (including hair and others) in Louisiana were Vietnamese-owned in 2011, but 80 percent of the fines imposed by the board that year were imposed on Vietnamese salon owners. That percentage rose to 91 percent in 2013, he said.
Cao said 80 to 90 percent of the nail salons in the state are owned by Vietnamese-Americans. He said the state cosmetology board makes, enforces and adjudicates its rules.
"These salons have the cards stacked against them," Cao alleged.
"This harassment is not carried out against white-owned salons," he argued.
The lawsuit is set for trial the week of March 13. Other nail salons involved in the suit are in Prairieville and Gonzales.