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Indian hoteliers test clout in lawsuits against big chains

Indian hoteliers test clout in lawsuits against big chains

ATLANTA — Hotel owner Vimal Patel has traced a familiar path to success in the U.S. hospitality industry.Patel is part of the Indian diaspora, which owns a sizeable share of the hotels and motels in the country. Like others in the community, his start in the business was humble. He worked the front desk of a hotel owned by relatives, building his knowledge before eventually investing with them in multiple franchises.Now he’s spearheading a legal fight that reflects the growing clout and confidence of Indian Americans in the hospitality sector — and the toll of the coronavirus pandemic on their businesses.Patel and scores of other Indian owners have filed lawsuits in federal court accusing two of the biggest hotel chains in the world of gouging them with fees, penalties and overpriced products. The excesses by Choice Hotels International, the company behind the Comfort Inn brand, and Holiday Inn franchiser Intercontinental Hotels Group reached a tipping point during the pandemic when the hospitality industry experienced a steep drop in business, the franchisees say.The claims echo those made by franchisees in other industries. But the suits against IHG and Choice also claim the companies discriminate against Indian American owners, and Indian hoteliers have cast them as a racial struggle. Some, unironically, have likened the fight against United Kingdom-based IHG to India’s campaign against British rule.“Indians still have this mentality. We’re still afraid to stand up regardless of how powerful you are, how well off you are,” said Patel, 51. “Why should we be scared of these larger corporations?”Patel’s lawsuit filed in May in U.S. district court in New Orleans was the first of at least five suits against IHG that are being coordinated by two law firms and seek to represent a larger group of franchisees as a class action.IHG spokesman Jacob Hawkins said in a statement that the company is committed to treating its hotel owners fairly and does not believe the claims have merit.Choice “has always had a strong commitment to the success of its franchisees,” the company said in a statement.Entrepreneurs from the western Indian state of Gujarat — particularly those with the last name Patel — found their niche in the motel business in the 1960s and ’70s. They bought motels in far-flung places and often lived on site. Some moved on to start management firms with stakes in multiple properties, including big city hotels. The 20,000 members of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association — nearly all of whom are of Indian descent — own more than half the hotels in the country, according to AAHOA.“If there weren’t Patels entering the industry, taking the risk to improve it and expand it, then you wouldn’t have as prolific of an industry as we have today,” said Pawan Dhingra, author of “Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream.”Patel’s introduction to the hospitality business began immediately after he arrived in the U.S. in 1991. His cousin owned a motel outside New Orleans, and he lived with him there while working at a donut shop and a McDonald’s. Today, he and two relatives have their own company, QHotels Management, which owns nine hotels in Louisiana — four of them IHG properties — and manages two other properties in Texas.“If we don’t stand up, what are we teaching our next generation?” he asked during a recent phone interview.His suit and the suit against Choice, which was filed by more than 90 franchisees last year, accuse the companies of receiving kickbacks from required vendors that charge franchisees higher prices for linens, utensils and other products.That allegation strikes at a “cardinal rule” of franchising, said Joel Libava, a franchise consultant who blogs about the industry at thefranchiseking.com. In exchange for paying royalties and fees for the brand name, franchise owners should expect the franchise company to use its buying power to get them discounts on products and services.“If that is not true and if you’re paying pretty much what the independent is paying, then why are you in a franchise?” Libava asked.During the pandemic, Rich Gandhi said Choice made him buy its branded hand sanitizer though he had already secured a cheaper supply for his Quality Inn in Middletown, New Jersey. The company has penalized him for using a different internet provider and piled on fees for services such as credit card processing and cybersecurity that were not in his original agreement, he said — all after his family spent $3.5 million buying and renovating the property.“It’s extortion, blackmail,” said Gandhi, 39, one of the plaintiffs in the Choice suit. “They are basically cutting up the hen that is laying the golden egg for short-term gain.”Hawkins said IHG helped franchisees through the pandemic by relaxing standards, discounting fees and improving terms with suppliers. Choice suspended some fees and allowed owners to defer others, according to an April 2020 news release.The suits also accuse Choice and IHG executives of routinely making racially derogatory comments about Indian American franchisees, though they don’t provide examples of any remarks.Both companies enforce their standards more strictly against Indian Americans, the suits allege. Choice provides more financing to white owners and has largely spared them from a rule forbidding two-story properties from carrying the Comfort Inn brand, the Choice suit says.Choice said in its statement it does not tolerate any form of discrimination and is “regularly recognized for its long-standing and deep commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.” Hawkins said IHG values the diversity of its franchisees and does not make decisions based on their ethnicity or national origin.In a victory for Choice, a judge in Pennsylvania in March ordered the franchise owners in that suit to arbitrate their claims individually with the company.Gandhi said he will fight on.“There’s nothing to lose now,” he said. “With COVID, we’ve been in such bad shape, it kind of emboldened us even more to go after these guys because you’re like, ‘We’ve seen the worst.’”

Black leaders rally to preserve cemetery next to skate park

Black leaders rally to preserve cemetery next to skate park

Black community leaders are calling on an Atlanta-area city to preserve a cemetery for African Americans that they say is under threat from a city-approved skate parkBy SUDHIN THANAWALA Associated PressJuly 26, 2021, 10:14 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleNEWNAN, Ga. — Black community leaders are calling on officials in a city south of Atlanta to preserve a cemetery for African Americans that they say has long been neglected and is under threat from a city skate park.Crews building the adjacent park in Newnan have dumped debris on the burial site, desecrating an important legacy of the city’s Black residents, community leaders say. The site is believed to contain the remains of slaves, and locals worry additional construction around the site may follow.“This is our history. This is our heritage, and we have to preserve it,” Render Godfrey, a Black pastor who lives in Newnan, said Monday. “There are citizens like me that still live here that care about this cemetery because my heritage is laying in one of these graves.”Godfrey and other organizers gathered at the roughly 4-acre (1.6 hectare), wooded burial site. There are no visible grave markers, but Ayisat Idris-Hosch, another organizer, pointed out depressions in the ground where she said people were buried. The site is believed to contain more than 200 graves and date back to at least the early 19th century.Construction equipment working on the adjacent skate park could be heard in the background.The city said in a statement it had held numerous public meetings about the skate park project and remained “committed and open to receiving feedback from residents regarding the city’s redevelopment projects.”Godfrey and Idris-Hosch said Newnan officials had not reached out to leaders in the Black community to get its feedback. Black people make up about a third of the roughly 40,000 residents in Newnan, which lies about 40 miles (64km) southwest of Atlanta.Godfrey and Idris-Hosch marched with about a dozen other people later to the historic Coweta County Courthouse, where they rallied with signs that read, “Don’t Dump on Our Ancestors” and “This Disrespect Would Never Happen in Oak Hill.”The nearby Oak Hill Cemetery contains the graves of Confederate soldiers and is well-manicured and marked.“We cannot allow our legacy to be forgotten, to be dumped on and to be disrespected,” Idris-Hosch, president of Newnan’s African American Alliance, said at the rally.The city has made improvements to a museum next to the African American burial site and planted flowers on the property, spokesperson Ashley Copeland said in an email. She said no one from the city was available for a phone interview.Lillie Smith, another member of the African American Alliance, said the city has invested much more money in other historic sites. She wants it to beautify and clearly designate the Black cemetery.“We’re not here to blame anybody for anything. We’re not looking for apologies,” she said. “We want the cemetery to be a place where people drive by and say, ‘That’s an enslaved African American cemetery.’”

Media blasts effort to bar press from part of Arbery trial

Media blasts effort to bar press from part of Arbery trial

Media outlets including The Associated Press are objecting to an effort to bar the press from one part of jury selection in the upcoming murder trial of three men accused of killing Ahmaud ArberyBy SUDHIN THANAWALA Associated PressJuly 20, 2021, 11:07 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleATLANTA — Barring reporters from court for one part of jury selection in the upcoming murder trial of three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery would violate well-established precedent and be a “striking step in the wrong direction,” media outlets, including The Associated Press, said Tuesday in a court filing.Attorneys for two of the defendants have asked a Georgia judge to keep media outlets out of the courtroom when lawyers question potential jurors to determine whether they have biases in the widely publicized case. They say it’s critical that potential jurors feel as comfortable as possible answering questions about race and other sensitive topics to ensure that Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael are tried by an impartial jury.The white father and son are charged with murder in the February 2020 killing of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot after the McMichaels spotted him running in their neighborhood outside the coastal port city of Brunswick. A neighbor who joined the pursuit, William “Roddie” Bryan, was also charged with murder.The U.S. and Georgia Supreme Courts have held that the questioning of potential jurors — a process known as voir dire — must be open to the public and press, attorneys for the media outlets said in their filing. Closure can only be considered in “extraordinary circumstances” when a potential juror makes that request and evidence shows public questioning would significantly harm the person’s privacy, they added.The other outlets are The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CNN, Cox Media Group for Action News Jax, WSB-TV and radio and Gannett, publisher of USA Today.Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said he was not surprised media outlets were objecting. He believes in an open courtroom, but “in limited circumstances, the defendant’s right to a fair trial can and will trump” that, he said.”In order to ascertain which jurors are suitable to serve in a case such as this case — one that has accumulated more pretrial publicity than most — we have to create the best environment for jurors to share their true thoughts, beliefs, biases and prejudices,” he said in a phone interview.Arbery’s killing sparked a national outcry last year amid protests over racial injustice. The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck when they spotted him running in their neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.All three defendants have said they committed no crimes. Defense attorneys say the McMichaels had a valid reason to pursue Arbery, thinking he was a burglar, and that Travis McMichael shot him in self-defense as Arbery grappled for his shotgun.The media outlets said in their filing that publicity was not sufficient to try to “stifle informed public discussion or reporting on a case,” and the defense had failed to show evidence that its clients would face bias under an open process.They cited the high-profile trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin for the slaying of George Floyd, noting that a judge in that case required potential jurors be questioned in public.“To foster public confidence in the fairness of the trial and the verdict reached by the jury, it is vital that the public and press be permitted to observe all portions of the trial, including voir dire,” they said.Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley has scheduled a hearing with attorneys Thursday to discuss pretrial motions and jury selection, which is scheduled for October. Neither he nor prosecutors have weighed in on the request to bar reporters from voir dire.

Georgia pushes back on reevaluation of health plan

Georgia pushes back on reevaluation of health plan

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office says it was surprised to hear federal officials were reevaluating its plan to overhaul how state residents buy health insurance under the Affordable Care ActBy SUDHIN THANAWALA Associated PressJuly 10, 2021, 12:29 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleATLANTA — The Biden administration’s decision to reevaluate Georgia’s plan to overhaul how state residents buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act came as a “surprise” and suggests it wants to revisit the plan’s approval, which is not allowed, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said.Georgia’s plan — dubbed “Georgia Access” — would improve the experience of shopping for insurance and encourage the private sector to enroll uninsured Georgia residents, the director of Kemp’s Office of Health Strategy and Coordination said in a letter to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.“Despite unsubstantiated claims to the contrary, Georgia Access will put more affordable, quality insurance coverage within reach of consumers in our state than a one-size-fits-all federal solution,” the letter by Grant Thomas says. It is dated July 2 and was first reported by Georgia Health News.Under the Republican governor’s plan, Georgia residents would bypass healthcare.gov and shop for federally subsidized health insurance through private agents.Critics worry the move will make it harder to shop for insurance and drive healthy people to cheaper plans that provide limited coverage, increasing insurance premiums for older and sicker people who need the comprehensive benefits required by the ACA. That’s because Georgia’s move to private websites would make it easier for consumers to simultaneously see plans that don’t provide all the benefits required by the ACA.Former President Donald Trump’s administration approved the state’s plan last year, and state officials have touted it as a way to boost insurance coverage. Democrat Joe Biden’s administration has sought to bolster the ACA — President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.In a letter last month to Kemp, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services raised concerns about the proposal to have the private sector, not the government, engage in outreach to get state residents to sign up for insurance under the ACA. Georgia had not indicated any specific financial commitment by the private sector to engage in marketing, federal health officials said.The letter, signed by Chiquita Brooks LaSure, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, noted that the Biden administration has increased funding to market the ACA and expanded subsidies and eligibility for tax credits to buy insurance through the program. It asked Georgia officials to factor those changes into updated “actuarial and economic analyses” to see whether their plan would meet federal requirements, including covering a comparable number of people and providing comprehensive benefits.In his letter, Thomas said 11 insurance carriers, including five new ones, and eight enrollment vendors have committed to participating in Georgia Access. The state has already made “substantial” investments in its plan on top of investments by private groups. The letter asks for clarification on the Biden administration’s request, including how it meets the terms and conditions of the Trump administration’s approval. Those terms, Thomas said, do not allow federal officials to “reopen the approval” of the plan.

Students pulled from car by Atlanta police sue city

Students pulled from car by Atlanta police sue city

Two students pulled from their car and hit with stun guns by Atlanta police while they were stuck in traffic caused by protests over George Floyd’s death have sued the cityBy SUDHIN THANAWALA Associated PressJune 17, 2021, 8:16 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleATLANTA — Atlanta police had no justification for pulling two students from their car and hitting them with stun guns while they were stuck in traffic caused by protests over George Floyd’s death, a lawsuit filed Thursday says.The federal lawsuit by Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young — students at historically Black colleges in Atlanta — accuses police of assault and false arrest and says one officer dangerously escalated the confrontation by falsely claiming the pair had a gun.“Accountability is what relieves pain and brings peace, and unfortunately there has been no accountability,” Mawuli Mel Davis, an attorney for Young, said.The suit names the city, nine officers and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as defendants. The mayor’s office said it had not been served with the lawsuit and could not comment.Video of the May 2020 confrontation — shared widely online — shows officers shouting at Pilgrim and Young, firing Tasers at them and dragging them from the car. The pair can be heard screaming and asking what they did wrong.They were heading home on May 30 during a curfew declared hours earlier by Bottoms when an officer instructed Young, 23, to leave the area, according to the suit. Young — unaware of the curfew — moved forward a few yards to comply with the officer but was again stuck in traffic, the suit says.He had been filming police confronting someone else on the side of the street, and the suit claims the officer retaliated by going after him and Pilgrim, 21.Police swarmed the vehicle, and one officer repeatedly shouted that they had a gun, though he had no reason to believe that, according to the suit. The suit claims another officer responded by pulling out and aiming his gun at Young and dragging him violently out of the vehicle and slamming him to the ground.Young was punched repeatedly and suffered a deep laceration to his arm that required 13 stitches, according to his attorneys.Another officer said concern about a gun led him to hit Pilgrim with a stun gun, according to the suit.“There was no gun. There was no weapon,” attorney L. Chris Stewart, who represents Pilgrim, said. “Yet he screamed multiple times from a distance, ‘He’s got a gun,’ which could have gotten these kids killed.”Attorneys played video of the encounter at a news conference announcing the suit. Young turned his head away from the screen, and Pilgrim dabbed tears from her eyes.Bottoms and then-Police Chief Erika Shields decided two officers had used excessive force and should be fired immediately, though those decisions were overturned earlier this year. At least two other officers named in the suit are no longer with Atlanta police.Prosecutors have filed criminal charges against six officers in the incident.Young and Pilgrim said they have had trouble moving on with their lives.“Everyday, I’m reminded of something from that night,” Young said.Pilgrim said she experiences anxiety and nightmares.“It’s like life took a total turn for something that we didn’t ask to be involved with,” she said.———Associated Press writer Kate Brumback contributed to this report.