Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 49 / 7 December 2017
 

Natali, city spar over lawsuit

NEWS


m.bajko@ebar.com

Bar owner Les Natali. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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An attorney for a Castro bar owner accused of racist business practices told a San Francisco judge last week that his client would drop a lawsuit against the Human Rights Commission if the city issued a statement exonerating him of the charges.

An HRC staff report issued on April 26, 2005 found that SF Badlands owner Les Natali had discriminated against women and African Americans at his 18th Street bar. Natali, who has repeatedly denied the allegations since they were first made public in June 2004, filed suit against the city last summer in order to force the HRC to declare the staff findings invalid.

HRC Director Virginia M. Harmon and the city attorney's office have argued that Natali has no standing to file the lawsuit since Harmon never officially signed off on the staff report. Before she could, they contend, Natali and his accusers entered into mediation and settled the matter last January.

As part of their negotiated agreement with Natali, the eight claimants withdrew their complaints with the HRC, and the case was officially closed with no director's report being issued. In effect, what the city is arguing is that while the finding may have been true, it never became an official city edict.

"There was a finding but it ceased to represent the views of the director and the agency," Deputy City Attorney Wayne Snodgrass told San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Ronald Evans Quidachay Wednesday, December 20.

But Natali's attorney, Dennis Riordan, told the court that since the city refuses to declare the staff findings incorrect, his client sought a definitive statement "that he is not a racist" in order to clear his name.

"We need a statement that the HRC has said Mr. Natali is not a racist. Unless we get that, a respected businessman has very vital business interests that are being damaged," said Riordan. "If one or two things happen this case is over. Foremost, if Ms. Harmon says unequivocally that the findings are withdrawn and, in effect, have never been made. The city has consistently declined to provide to Mr. Natali a statement that the findings are moot."

Snodgrass argued that Natali and his lawyers are trying to elevate a staff report to be an official agency finding, when in fact Harmon never issued a final report in the matter.

"What the petitioner is trying to do is to blur into one what are two distinct actions," said Snodgrass.

During the preliminary hearing last week to determine if Natali had standing to sue the HRC, Quidachay indicated that he saw no need to move forward with the lawsuit considering the city agency never issued a formal finding in the matter.

"It is unclear to the court exactly what the writ goes to," Quidachay told Riordan, referring to Natali's legal action.

Riordan told the judge that he believed both sides "could come up with some language" that would placate his client and lead him to drop his suit. Quidachay asked both sides to confer on the statement and submit a proposal to him by the first of the year.

Any statement that overturns the staff report would be met with fierce opposition from the patrons and former Badlands employees who brought forth the initial accusations against Natali, said their attorney, Julius Turman.

"The claimants are greatly disturbed by this report. They will be meeting shortly to decide what action they will take against Mr. Natali or the HRC to stop whatever action they take to revert or vacate the ruling," said Turman in a voicemail message prior to leaving town for the Christmas holiday.

A spokesman for the community group, And Castro For All, which helped to publicize the accusations against Natali as well as picketed and boycotted his bar, wrote in an e-mail that due to the mediated confidential agreement with Natali, he was unsure if he could discuss the lawsuit.

"I'm eager to see a 'transcript,' so to speak, but not sure we can comment regardless ... though we'll mull it over," wrote John Newsome.

Patio update

In the meantime, Natali said this week he had an operator for the long-shuttered Patio space at 531 Castro Street. The restaurant has remained closed for six years, and efforts to reopen it languished amid changing zoning requirements and a permit dispute.

In an e-mail Natali stated that he is not ready to announce the name of the operator but that it is a company with several restaurants in the Bay Area. According to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, no one has yet to apply for a liquor license at that location.

Natali wrote that the restaurateur planned to open a "casual neighborhood restaurant serving brunch, lunch, and dinner at reasonable prices."

Natali added that the company "is not a chain. It is an independent, small group of individuals who operate three distinctly different restaurants in the Bay Area." He said he expected the new restaurant to open in the spring of 2007.

As for the 18th Street bar, formerly called the Pendulum and considered the only gay bar in the city that catered to African Americans, Natali said he didn't expect it to reopen until "sometime in 2007."

Natali bought the Pendulum and then closed it in the midst of the Badlands dispute. At the time, black community leaders accused him of shuttering the bar in retaliation for their protesting his business practices at his other establishments. Natali said he had to close the bar in order to upgrade the interior and outdoor spaces, as well as make them handicap accessible.






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