MANHATTAN (CN) – A formal grievance letter filed with court officials Thursday takes aim at a lawyer identified in a viral video where a white man threatens New York City restaurant workers with deportation.
“The audacity to profile and verbally assault innocent bystanders and customers in a commercial location is a violation of our civil society,” the letter states, filed by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who in 2016 became the first formerly undocumented immigrant elected to Congress.
Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic and Diaz is of Puerto Rican descent. The men served on the New York state Assembly together for over a decade.
“We both saw the video of this guy’s actions and we felt compelled to hold him accountable,” Rep. Espaillat said in a phone interview Friday.
In their letter, Espaillat and Diaz wrote they were “disgusted” by the video of a customer tirade that occurred Wednesday at the lunch-chain restaurant Fresh Kitchen on Madison Avenue near 39th Street.
The footage captures a man said to be a New York lawyer named Aaron Schlossberg complaining that restaurant staffers had been speaking Spanish.
“It’s America,” the man says to a manager trying to diffuse the situation.
“I will be following up,” the man adds as he heads to the exit. “And my guess is, they’re not documented. So my next call is to ICE, to have each one of them kicked out of my country. … If they have the balls to come here and live off my money — I pay for their welfare. I pay for their ability to be here. So the least they could do is speak English.”
The letter by Espaillat and Diaz on Thursday urges the State Grievance Committee “to affirm that such misconduct and behavior will not, and must never be tolerated.”
“There is simply no place for the scourge of racism and the vulgarity of bigotry in our great nation,” the letter states earlier.
Espaillat and Diaz’s letter is addressed to Chief Counsel Jorge Dopico of the First Judicial Department. An employee reached for comment would not say how long investigations take but confirmed that the staff investigates all complaints.
A complaint written by politicians would not be prioritized over one written by a layperson, the staffer added.
In an interview, Espaillat said he would monitor and follow up with the court as it investigates his grievance.
“I think the goal is first of all for people to know … that there is a code of ethics of behavior that [lawyers] have to comply with both in and outside of the court,” Espaillat said.
“And during these troubling times across the country where people feel like they can do or say things and get away with it … people will be held accountable,” the congressman added.
Espaillat connected the Fresh Kitchen diatribe to a bigger trend.
“Anytime you have the kind of language coming from the White House or anywhere else in government, people across the country may feel they’re entitled to go out there and spew this hate and they will get away with it,” he said.
Diaz’s office did not respond to a request for comment but the local news blog Gothamist quoted him Thursday as saying he would back disbarment for Schlossberg.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing that, either,” said Espaillat of disbarment, “but I will leave that up to the process to play out.”
The congressman emphasized that Rule 8.4 of the professional guidelines for the New York State Unified Court System states that a lawyer or law firm should not “engage in any … conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness as a lawyer.”
Espaillat also voiced alarm at the claim on Schlossberg’s website that he offers services in Spanish.
“I think his entire behavior was demeaning to the people there,” Espaillat said. “It was abrasive, aggressive. ….What if he has Spanish-speaking clients? Is he going to represent them with the same level of commitment and transparency? Are they being fully represented, honestly represented, transparently represented by an attorney who makes comments of this nature?”
A phone call to Schlossberg’s firm was answered with an automatic “unavailable” message Friday. Its website says the office also offers services in French, Chinese and Hebrew.
Since the Fresh Kitchen footage went viral, the lawyer identified by the New York Daily News as a 42-year-old registered Republican has spent the latter half of the week dodging the media and getting kicked out of his Madison Avenue office space.
Even if Schlossberg does not call Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Espaillat called it “totally possible” that agents will show up at Fresh Kitchen, given the amount of publicity the restaurant has gotten over the incident and the fact that ICE has raided restaurants in the past.
“No question about it,” Espaillat said. “I think that any time information gets out there of this nature, one cannot guarantee that they won’t react.”
For now, Fresh Kitchen’s Google reviews are filled with messages of support, some for the restaurant and others for Schlossberg. An employee who answered a phone call Friday said the restaurant had no additional comment beyond what manager Hyunsik Kong said earlier this week, as reported by The New York Post.
“I was in awe … after it happened I was shocked,” Kong said.
Concluding the phone interview Friday, Espaillat spoke of the importance of representative government.
“I think that perhaps both the borough president and I are a little more in touch with this because we speak Spanish, but this is not just a Spanish-speaking issue,” he said.
“One of our goals is to ensure the government is truly representative, or as close as possible, to the population that we service.”