Discrimination suit alleges Manhattan hookah lounge chased away minority customers

·3 min read

A Manhattan class action lawsuit filed Friday charged two Black customers were turned away from a popular hookah lounge in what they call a “clear pattern” of racial discrimination.

A bouncer at the Flatiron district’s Pergola lounge asked the pair to leave in January, declaring the manager “doesn’t let your kind of Black people in here,” according to the federal court filing.

Joshua Smith and Cameron Niles were initially rebuffed for dressing too casually before learning the real motivation for what occurred, the lawsuit alleged.

The two left the lounge “utterly humiliated to be barred from a restaurant because of their race, as though they were living in the Jim Crow South instead of New York City circa 2022,” the 29-page suit recounted.

“Pergola’s history of casual racism has caused untold humiliation and psychological harm to dozens, if not hundreds of Black patrons over the years,” said Susan Crumiller, lawyer for Smith, Niles and proposed clients in the class action suit.

“Our hope is that by pursuing these claims on a class-wide basis, we are sending a message to Pergola that its racist behavior has got to stop. Period.”

Smith and Niles, dressed in button-down shirts and pants, were described as bewildered by their rejection shortly after they arrived in an Uber for their dinner reservation.

“Their confusion turned to pain and humiliation when they immediately observed a group of white patrons leaving the restaurant in jeans and sweatpants,” the lawsuit charged. “It became clear that Pergola was selectively invoking its dress code as a pretext to deny Smith and Niles entry due to their race.”

The class action suit intends to cover all “black and brown patrons and/or attempted patrons” denied entry to the lounge, noting that Smith and Niles later learned “they were far from the only black people to be barred ... or otherwise treated as second-class citizens based on their race,” court papers said.

A former bouncer at the business also came forward with first-hand details “regarding the systematic exclusion of Black and/or brown patrons,” the lawsuit asserted.

The filing included multiple social media posts showing white customers inside the business wearing ripped jeans, baseball caps, T-shirts and denim shirts, while no people of color were represented.

Pergola owner Moutaz Ali dismissed the racism charge as unfounded and inaccurate.

“More than 50% of Pergola guests are people of color,” he wrote in an email. “The head of security and four out of five security guards are African-Americans. Anyone who came to Pergola knows how ridiculous these allegations are.”

The restaurant web site boasts that “from formal dining to late night revelry, PERGOLA truly is A CULTURE OF ITS OWN.”

The lawsuit seeks punitive and compensatory damages along with “further relief as the court may deem proper.”

According to the court filing, both men remain deeply affected by their mistreatment at the restaurant.

“To this day, they become anxious when approaching bar, restaurants ... which trigger painful memories,” the paperwork said.