Detroit Avenue Merchant Sues the City of Lakewood

Owners of Just 4 Girlz claim that a building department officials made racist remarks during a recent inspection.

Just 4 Girlz, a Detroit Avenue women’s clothing store, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination based on a recent city inspection.

Filed by Just 4 Girlz co-owner Steven Kessler, the lawsuit claims that a city inspector made racist remarks during an August building inspection.

Kessler’s wife, and co-owner of the boutique, Gloria Kessler, is of Hispanic heritage. 

“They told us not to hire brown-skinned people,” said Steven Kessler told Lakewood Patch. “My wife hangs a Mexican flag, and they told us to hang an American flag. That’s illegal.”

Kevin Butler, the city’s law director, who was one of nine city employees name in the lawsuit, called the allegations “baseless.” 

“I’ve reviewed the lawsuit, and it’s our position that this is absurd,” said Butler. “It proves the point that people can just make up allegations.”

He added that the city plans to “aggressively” defend the lawsuit.

Among the other city employees named in the lawsuit are Mayor Michael Summers and building inspector Kevin Kelley.

The lawsuit alleges that the city “violated federally secured rights on the basis of race protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the Fourteenth Amendement and tortious interference with prospective business relationship.” 

The nine city employees will likely be represented by attorneys hired by the city, Butler said. 

Kessler claims he has an audio recording of the exchange. 

Butler penned a letter to the Just 4 Girlz’ attorney Donald Harris asking for a copy of the recording.

He said he hasn’t yet heard back from Harris.

The Kesslers, both Huron residents, opened the store in August 2011.

Among building departments’ findings during the inspection was that the number of signs displayed in the storefront window violate the sign code.

“The city has gotten anonymous complaints that the signs were an issue,” Butler said. “Kevin Kelley went out there and had a friendly exchange with the employee. He didn’t even issue a correction notice.”

The next day, Gloria Kessler went to Lakewood City Hall and agreed to take the correction notice, Butler said.

Then a couple weeks later, the lawsuit was filed in US Northern Ohio District Court

Kessler said he believes the city is “picking favorites.”

“We’re not going anywhere and we’re not going to back down,” he said. “They should be fair and enforce the same rules.”

Darrin Gaking September 20, 2012 at 03:48 AM
It is very unlikely that there is any truth in the allegations as presented in this story. Lakewood has a high proportion of ethnic business owners who are visited frequently by city inspectors (most of the time responding to complaints). In the 20+ yrs living and working here this is the first race based complaint I've heard. Diversity is a major part of what makes Lakewood great.
kandysmom September 20, 2012 at 12:05 PM
Why do they live in Huron, have an attorney from Sandusky, and yet a storefront in Lakewood? I don't get that. I mean, I love Lakewood, but to have the kind of store they have, it makes no sense. I doubt they would make enough to pay for the gas, let pay the employees, time etc. It sounds fishy.
former resident September 20, 2012 at 02:38 PM
I have read all your comments, am a former residence of Lakewood, and also am a shopper at the establishment and for one know first hand that there is truth to the allegations. I have seen the citation and email that was given to Just 4 Girlz regarding their signage, but yet stores across the street and down the street are allowed to cover their windows, have dancing animals with signs around their neck outside their shop but low and behold not a mannequin! Why is it, if the City officials were not pin pointing, that no other commercial establishment get any warnings or citations on signage but singled out just one? It is not fair to tell one hand to do this, while the other hand does another... be uniformed in the laws and all is good.
Barbara McHugh September 20, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Wow.. I can't believe I am reading some of the comments. Everyone there is soooooo nice! They are just trying to make it in this economy like everyone else. If you take a look around Lakewood you will see many other business with way more signs than Just 4 Girls. As for this never happening in Lakewood as far as discrimination is concerned - just do a Google search and see the pending lawsuit. I can't believe everything written in this article- or any other, because the media tends to twist things. I love all the small shops in Lakewood. I shop all local businesses. And this will certainly not steer me from shopping there.. Seems like this is what Lakewood is trying to do.. I thought you wanted a thriving community? Maybe its just me?
jim smith September 20, 2012 at 03:52 PM
I'm walking through Lakewood rite now there are more people doing illegal shit on the street than this place. Its hard enough for small business to succeed with out sum one busting there balls. Pull your head out of your ass Lakewood be happy some1 has put there business on your shitty streets.
will September 20, 2012 at 03:58 PM
I do see city inspectors doing this. I had one come to my home when they were doing an inspection because my landlord needed one for re financing his loan.... I had stuff that I sell at flea markets in my basement, stacked up I was told it was a code violation and the inspector couldnt tell me which one. The inspector asked what I did and i told him and he muttered (just like those damn mexicans).. I am white so it wasn't towards me. I tried to call the building inspectors office and was told they would look into it but they didn't since the same guy came out for a follow up, tho he kept comments to himself..
Alexandra September 20, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Lakewood is a great community that is growing by leaps and bounds. I do not shop in there just because it does not look like a store I would not be interested in. I love consignment or thrift store shopping, but just not that store. Nothing against owners. Prefer Clothes Mentor, Designer Consignor and yes, Value World. The mannequin outside does tend to turn me off, just me though.
Celeste September 20, 2012 at 04:45 PM
I've met the owners of J4G once and they seemed very nice, and I have no problem with how their store is presented on the exterior. But I just have to say, city inspector Kevin Kelly is one of the nicest people I have ever met, anywhere, ever. I've worked with the city for both my house and business and he was amazing to work with. Always polite, courteous and pleasant.
Shelley September 20, 2012 at 06:06 PM
I am a Lakewood resident who lives 3 blocks from their store. I've seen nothing from any other store that you speak of. They will have a difficult time proving outdoor dancing animals, as a daily passerby, I see only their creepy mannequin and eyesores galore as I go past and wonder why, as an 18 yr homeowner, I know I do not have right to place items on the sidewalk & they frequently think that they do. It's a walking route to/from Grant school, stores & RTA. Just a couple weeks ago we actually noticed the name of the store. It was a low clutter day. I've not seen anything that even rivals it since 1982 when I started working out here. I've seen many poor taste windows but it was all indoors. My red skinned self has dealt with the building dept many times over the years.I don't always love them, they are typically uber rigid but fair and there is a code book you can read it online if you have a question.( Much of it is Ohio Revised Code.regarding the person w the flea market basement) And just the fact that they are sharing their tale of woe with their customers makes these people less credible to me. As far as uniformity. We had the only IHOP building that differed from all others as Lakewood wouldn't allow them here unless their entire building would blend in the neighborhood. So they built it and we didn't come. Now it's a Mexican restaurant. If you read the rules before you start out it makes it much easier.
man_about_town September 20, 2012 at 06:18 PM
This truly is sad.. as a former business owner in lakewood I know first hand of the leaps and jumps lakewood will make any small business jump through. It seems like they try to keep these store fronts empty. All these people are trying to do is get by and run a business and as far as the signs are concerned.. how else will anyone know they are there?? This really upsets me, as it hits home, and im sure many other small business owners can agree. Its hard enough to run a business these days and in this economy without people making it harder.Sounds like they were minding their own business until Lakewood stepped in and made them take down their signs.. they are standing up for themselves, so good on them!.. I personally haven't been into this store, as it does not apply to me, however I DO know what it is like to have a small business in Lakewood. truly sad. I will be rooting for them all the way.
Michael Rice September 20, 2012 at 06:28 PM
No offense, but nothing you said makes any sense. Why does it matter where they live or where there attorney is from? How do you know how much money they just based on the type of business they own? Please try and use logic when posting.
Michael Rice September 20, 2012 at 06:30 PM
I agree, there are bars that have signs and posters basically covering every window?
Allison Smalley September 20, 2012 at 06:32 PM
I think this is less about the signs and more about their lawsuit based on alleged racism. Which... seems unlikely to me. I HAVE been to this store. The front is eye catching but the store is nicely set up.. the merchandise is well stocked and for consignment/used the items are in excellent condition. All mannequins are 'creepy' this one no more so. My other consignment shop uses several... no complaints there. The city will respond on a complaint. They do not (appear) to seek people out to cite. (been there done that at my own residence and was told they responded on a complaint.. they do not have time to seek out violation unless they are blatant)
Nancy Jones September 20, 2012 at 09:05 PM
Dancing animals? Yes, "Shelley", just this afternoon I witnessed one of the "dancing animals" in front of Verizon. It's actually a human in a chipmunk costume and well, last I knew, a chipmunk is an animal, right? I also remember seeing someone in a chicken costume in front of Quaker Steak during the week of the opening so,I don't think it will be "a difficult time proving outdoor dancing animals, as a daily passerby" Shelley! And I personally prefer the "eyesores galore" of a mannequin, as you mentioned Shelley. It stands still in front of a store and doesn't try to wave people down in the middle of traffic like the chipmunk and chicken which, could even cause a potential accident...but, that's just me! I agree with you man_about_town and believe "they were just minding their own business until Lakewood stepped in" and requested they take their signs down. How the heck are business owner's supposed to get the attention of the locals to shop in their businesses without signs? And seriously, are the signs really hurting anyone? And I don't see other businesses with an excessive amount of window coverage taking their signs down? And as for the "2 hip-high stand alone signs on the sidewalk ... and ... their trademark mannequin out on the sidewalk" goes, Jack Vosteen, I'm more then sure I've seen those "stand alone" signs in front of many, many other businesses in Lakewood! What makes those business any different then Just 4 Girlz? NOTHING!!
Shelley September 20, 2012 at 09:23 PM
This may come as a shock to you Nancy, but those are not inanimate objects. There are people inside those animal suits who cannot blow over and can move out of the way when necessary. It is not a matter of taste. It is a safety matter I am fairly certain. You may have noticed that the weather here gets suddenly windy near the lake on occasion. The chipmunk wont end up on your windshield even if you might like him to do so. I can't believe I am explaining this to anyone. I also can't believe that when NO CITATION WAS ISSUED SHE MARCHED DOWN TO CITY HALL ON ANOTHER DAY TO GET ONE SO SHE COULD TURN AROUND CALL THE CITY RACIST AND SUE IN FEDERAL COURT. Tacky signs, creepy mannequins and chipmunks aside. That is really my only problem. My tax dollars are paying for that.
Shelley September 20, 2012 at 09:48 PM
Mr. Hero on one corner and Hot Spot was on the other corner. Both owned by non-American natives. They had many legal signs inside their windows and until the theater was trashed both had cars in their parking lots. I frequent both and never saw the bldg dept lurking because the owners are not white. Same for Moons deli store which also seems busy. Also not white and also still in business for many years. They have good corner locations, parking lots and sell products people use every day. If your business failed that's a sad, but is more likely than not. But it's not the bldg dept or your country of birth's fault if a business fails. You just didn't have the lucky winning combo as these folks have. Girly stores have sparkly, bright, blingy things in the window. A little advice from one of the local owners with inspired store fronts ie Thirstees or other locals may have brought in good advice and additional business. Most locals are happy to cross advertise and work together. But why take the high road when you can try for the big court payday and then leave town?
Nancy Jones September 20, 2012 at 10:58 PM
Rumor has it a lot of people are now replying in the office of the Just 4 Girlz attorney, I'm told. And this is not just a quick payday. I myself, living in Lakewood have talked to the attorny instead of listening to one side of a Lakwoodite attorney. Check both sides of the story before you speak. It sounds like you might be a friend or related since you are hearing only one side. I would recommend you call their attorey as I did to hear it directly from the source....
tobeloved September 21, 2012 at 01:29 AM
Aw this is a shame. I shop here all the time! Yes, it is clean and yes, the staff is so sweet and nice! What everyone is failing to talk about is how the store is nearly invisible during broad daylight. I drove by this store every morning for months, not even knowing they were there only to find they have been there since last August! One afternoon I drove by and the maniquinn caught my eye. I stopped in and was treated as if I had been a friend for years. My point to all of this is that if that maniquinn and the signs were not out, I wouldve continued to drive by, not knowing about the wonderful beautiful treats the community of lakewood has to offer. We are all a community. I will be like many others and support this place. Besides... what exactly do we want in Lakewood? More Walmart? NO! We want more small business to thrive, So for that to happen they need to be visible.
tobeloved September 21, 2012 at 01:35 AM
And I aggree that Kevin Kelly is a nice person, and probably just doing his job. but why only pick on them? What about the tons of businesses that are doing the same thing? I think that is what they are trying to prove.
Theresa Ferline-Carr September 21, 2012 at 03:46 AM
Thank you Celeste, As I read this article and saw that Kevin Kelly was named, my words were "what? Kevin Kelly?" I am telling you that Kevin was and continues to be amazing at his job. I have a business in Lakewood and have moved twice, Kevin has inspected both locations and at all times was professional and accurate as well as friendly and kind. He is well-mannered and polite. As a matter of fact I went back to the city to tell them how much Kevin helped us bring our building to code and he personally helped me with my signage. I believe that it is sad that our City's dollars are being spent to defend it's workers in this unproven law suit, they cannot even reveal this so-called recording of the conversation...I don't believe a word of this.
Shelley September 21, 2012 at 04:03 AM
All attorneys are well paid to say exactly what would make their clients sound good. Mr. Butler, the city's law director, used to by the counsel person in my ward before he was promoted. He is an honest, concerned resident. He's not getting paid to defend the city. The city will take from the tax money they get from us to hire many lawyers as they are going after many people, Anyone hack lawyer who can count would hope the city would settle as it would cost less than paying for a lawyer per person for these far from proven claims. I've worked with lawyers for years. Tell me "Nancy", in your mind, what differentiates their lawyer from say Casey Anthony's lawyer? or OJ Simpson's lawyers? They are all paid to make their clients look good. They can type anything they want on court documents. Only on the court date must they prove what they allege. To believe anything based on rumors and a conversation with a paid attorney is a low standard. These types of cases are filed and dropped everyday. You see if Lakewood refuses to settle out of court and pay them off and the Kesslers lose, they may be ordered to pay costs back to Lakewood. Quite a gamble.
Shelley September 21, 2012 at 04:17 AM
1. Lakewood had not yet hired attorneys for me to "listen to". The law director is not a "Lakewoodite" attorney, lol. 2, I have no friends or relative involved other than my 18yrs of property and income taxes and it makes me sick to see mine and my neighbors money wasted on this. Rational people would find another way. 3, The more time their lawyer spends on the phone, the more the Kessler's must pay him. Lawyers are on a retainer, and paid hourly. If you like them so much, save them some money and don't run up their tab with their attorney. 4, Have some basic understanding of the legal system before you speak.
On the Record September 21, 2012 at 03:41 PM
On the record: It baffles me to think that there has not been a mention that every story has two sides. All comments have been based on a story line from the Lakewood Patch that has not asked to have an interview with the Donald Harris Law Firm regarding this lawsuit or for a briefing of the "other side of the story". I would like to set the story straight with the following facts: 1. Mr. Butler has NEVER asked for a copy of any recording. The only communication given between Mr. Butler (and or his office) has been a letter stating his representation of the defendants named, and that any and all items such as emails, recordings, videos, pictures, etc. are to be kept and preserved. 2. Items for review are often requested during discovery request. This matter is not near the timeline of any discovery to be requested, but at such time, and when items are requested for discovery they will be more than gladly handed over. 3. The Lakewood Patch who printed this story did not do a proper news report, meaning that the Plaintiffs nor the Plaintiff's attorney was contacted for comment. There has been no communication from the Lakewood Patch which goes to show that only ONE SIDE of this matter has been printed. If you want to have a proper news story, please be moral and ethical and communicate with both sides of the matter prior to printing. Lastly, this matter did not have to go this far if the City of Lakewood would have worked with the Plaintiffs for a resolution.
Jack Vosteen September 21, 2012 at 05:44 PM
1) The above story presents the facts of a Federal lawsuit filed by J4G 2) J4G's attorney knows full well that he can join in this fray and/or present his defense here 3) The charge of racism can only logically be discussed by those involved and ultimately in court if things go that far 4) Someone complained to City Hall about J4G's sidewalk antics. The complaint was investigated. J4G was found in violation. A citation was issued. End of story 5) Who might have complained: a fellow merchant ... a private citizen ... the police ... someone at City Hall ... or was it just the result of a scheduled inspection ... ??? ... It matters not, because the results are all the same 6) So here we are in these ring side seats and the show goes on. Ladies and gentleman, in this corner .................
Lauretta September 21, 2012 at 07:14 PM
This is a very rude comment. I personally know the owners, they are both great people. And if there wasnt a case do you really think an attorney would take the case to Federal Court? And they have to remove a Mexican Flag but people who has Rainbow Flags up can leave them up. And other stores in that area has many signs on their windows but its ok ? Come on people wake up , The rules should stand the same for All not just who fits in the crowd.
Allison Smalley September 21, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Lauretta, I am far from rude. and YES and attorney would take anything to Federal court. They do not work for a cause they work for MONEY, period. I just drove past last night and their Mexican flag iAND American flags are still up, no one has forced them to take it down, The city responded to a COMPLAINT. This is not a witch hunt. I just feel the allegation that they stated 'do not hire brown skin people' is nearly the most ridiculous thing I have heard yet. Peace Baby~
Steve September 21, 2012 at 07:55 PM
Good grief...Growing by 'leaps and bounds'. Where have you been the last 10 years. Certainly , not in this city...
Lakewood Loyal Shopper September 22, 2012 at 07:02 AM
I understand following up on complaints, that is the Inspector's job. That is not the issue, the issue is why ONE STORE was singled out of many on the same mile walk with more and worse violations? This is the problem.. and YES they too were complained about but never cited!
Lakewood Loyal Shopper September 22, 2012 at 07:06 AM
furthermore, regarding your #6, it DOES matter how this "inspection" came about, especially when it seems to be only directed towards one merchant. A merchant who, in my opinion, has one of the best looking stores on the block, is bringing business to the community, has participated in all the Detroit Merchant events, donated to local events and has not bothered nor disturbed anyone. Could it have been another local merchant? Maybe and shame on them. It is the way the matter was handled that is the issue here.. it is a problem when citations are issued to one establishment and blinders are worn to any other that is in plain sight!
Jenette September 26, 2012 at 09:29 PM
To Colin, So i hear you only post positive stuff about city no negative because your spouse owns a business here and was gonna have to close do to parking issues. But rumor has it you made a deal with the city and her customers can park in the parks parking area...hmm will city letall of us do that. I personally dont know the party here but its a shame your trying to run out small business owners


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