A Queens lawyer who promoted his law firm on signs attached to buildings he owns through corporate entities cannot sidestep New York City’s permit requirements for outdoor advertising, even though he was selling his own services on the signs, the majority on a Manhattan appeals court has ruled.
A panel of the Appellate Division, First Department on Thursday okayed fines imposed on attorney John Ciafone under the billboard law on a 3-2 vote, holding that the corporate ownership made a difference.
But dissenters in the case argued it was “logically absurd” for the city officials to determine that Ciafone—who owned the building through a corporate entity—violated the city’s outdoor advertising law, while a lawyer who owned a building in their own name would be in compliance if they were to put up a sign publicizing their services.
Ciafone, a solo attorney, posted signs on five buildings in Brooklyn and Queens through separate corporate entities, which have been hit with a combined $380,000 in fines, according to the First Department’s ruling. He says he owns the buildings through corporations for tax and liability purposes and that he uses the buildings for satellite office space.
The signs, for which Ciafone admits he did not obtain permits, promote the services of the Law Offices of John J. Ciafone, Esq. and list his firm’s phone number after the words “For JUSTICE.”
“To me, if you own a piece of property and put a flag on it, it’s the same thing,” Ciafone said in an interview.
Hearing officers who took up the case sided with Ciafone, finding that, while the signs do not count as “accessory signs,” which can be hung without permits, they also didn’t fall under the definition of outdoor advertising, as the attorney was promoting himself and not making ad space available to other parties.
But on appeal, the city’s Environmental Control Board saw it differently: whether Ciafone controls the corporations or not, he and the corporations are separate entities, and thus the signs need permits.
Likewise, the three-judge majority on the First Department, ruling on an Article 78 petition to challenge the board’s ruling, said Ciafone and his corporations are separate and distinct entities.
Writing for the majority, Justice Peter Tom said the board’s ruling achieves the goals of the city’s outdoor advertising laws and that the “solution to the concerns articulated by the dissent is simple”—Ciafone’s corporations should obtain permits for Ciafone’s signs.
Tom was joined in the majority by Justices Troy Webber and Cynthia Kern.
But Justice Richard Andrias, joined in the dissent by Justice Barbara Kapnick, said the board is drawing an arbitrary and capricious distinction in Ciafone’s case based on his chosen form of building ownership.
“In either case, Ciafone was effectively the owner of and/or controlled the buildings and was advertising his own law practice, and it is irrational to penalize him for forming corporate entities to own the buildings for tax and liability purposes,” Andrias said.
Assistant Corporation Counsels Barbara Graves-Poller and Claude Platton appeared for the city in the case.
“We are pleased the court confirmed that ECB’s interpretation of the statute and application of precedent was rational,” said Law Department spokesman Nicholas Paolucci.
Ciafone was represented by Lindsay Garroway and Nicole Beletsky of Cohen, Hochman & Allen. Ciafone said he plans to file for leave to appeal the First Department’s holding to the Court of Appeals, saying the board and the court have trampled upon his First Amendment rights.
“It’s just another way the city makes money,” Ciafone said. “They should have a little more decency in how they make their money.”