To state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Flushing’s Tinny Beauty has “duped” students who take classes to become licensed manicurists. But the school’s management blames various state agencies and a confounding application process for the entire mess.
Schneiderman announced last week that his office filed a lawsuit against Tinny Beauty, its president and founder Lydia Leung, and secretary Alex Cheung, for using “misleading and deceptive tactics” that promised customers they could obtain their manicurist licenses without completing the required number of hours of course instruction.
The lawsuit seeks full restitution for the hundreds of consumers injured in the alleged scheme, penalties, fees, and an injunction forcing the company to stop its “fraudulent practices.”
The 35-year-old Tinny Beauty International School is headquartered in Manhattan. Its branch at 39-07 Prince St. in Flushing is the focus of the case.
The lawsuit contends that ads like “Tinny can help convert foreign licenses to New York State licenses” placed in Chinese-language newspapers targeted non-English speaking customers who did not fully comprehend the certification process and had to rely on the school to help them obtain their nail specialty licenses.
However, Leung and Cheung argue that the lawsuit overlooks the school’s efforts at recognizing the previous work experience many students gained in their native countries.
“They have already been in this business in their home country, and now they just needed a license to work here,” Cheung said. “They don’t need to attend the full 250-hour course.”
He said two state agencies — the Education and State departments — are involved in the licensing process, and the lack of coordination between them had created the mess.
From around 2005 to at least 2010, Leung routinely affirmed on the nail specialty application forms that the license applicants had completed at least 250 hours of training at Tinny School when they in fact had not, the suit contends. Up to 700 people were charged between $350 and $500 to obtain their licenses that way, according to court papers.
Department of State regulations require applicants go through a 250-hour state-approved course of study and take both the written and practical exams to obtain a license.
The Division of Licensing Services at the State Department allows individuals with at least five years of experience to apply for licenses without examination or further education — but they have to submit supporting documents including tax returns.
“The problem is people can’t get all the documents. Many in China don’t file tax returns,” Cheung said.
At the same time, the state Department of Education allows people who have been rejected by the licensing division to be evaluated by an approved public or private cosmetology school to determine if additional hours of instruction are required prior to taking the State Board exams, Cheung explained.
In other words, the DOE allows the school to administer a shorter course for those applicants. Tinny charges around $350 for the 30-to-35 hour seminar, which teaches safety and hygiene requirements, exam skills and more.
At the end of the course, the school helps the applicants fill out the application form issued by the licensing division.
But the form doesn’t give the school space to declare that it has offered a shorter-duration course.
“Our argument is that the form is pre-printed — we have to affirm that they have completed 250 hours of training. We can’t change the form,” Cheung said. “We did what the Education Department told our school director to do.”
The attorney general’s office declined to comment.
But court papers counter that applicants with five years of experience outside New York don’t even need to take the licensing exam, and “certainly would not have needed to pay [Tinny Beauty] $350 for a ‘test preparation’ seminar.” They further contend that Tinny could not prove that the students actually possessed five or more years of experience, or that they had actually done the evaluations and seminars. An undercover investigator with the State Department was also told she could pay Tinny a lump sum fee but the school made no effort to evaluate her skills, according to the papers.
Leung denies any wrongdoing.
“If we were really doing this for money, we could have made everyone — including those with experience — take the 250-hour course and pay $950 instead of the $350 that we charge for the additional instruction course,” Leung said.
She added that the school is in fact helping many new immigrants get their licenses faster so they can start work sooner.
“But we still follow the proper procedure,” she said. She claimed that the investigation was prompted by complaints filed by a rival beauty school.
Cheung also said that the way New York State administers its exams is unfair. A policy change in 2003 made people who apply on their own based upon experience or education outside of the state take exams in English.
“If you’re Chinese, you won’t be able to pass the English-language exam,” Cheung said.
“This definitely is a very serious case of race discrimination,” Leung added.
Meanwhile, those who completed their full training in a New York school in a foreign language are still allowed to take their exams in that language.
“So people come and submit their application under our school, so that they can take the exam in Chinese,” Cheung explained.
Leung said she’s not worried about the case.
“I know where I stand. Their accusations are not true,” she said.
“After we win the case, I plan to start a beauty association and educate people in the beauty industry, to strengthen their legal knowledge so they won’t be bullied by government officials,” she said. “A good government helps its citizens, but that’s not the case now.”
A statement by Tinny’s lawyers said the action by the attorney general is “harmful to the thousands of immigrants, primarily Asian women.”
Six Tinny School nail specialists who did not complete the 250 hours of training have had their licenses revoked, according to court documents. Cheung said he’s helping those former students reapply.
Leung and Cheung accused the state not just of discrimination but also attempting to mine money from small businesses.
“They wanted us to pay a $100,000 fine, and they’ll let us go,” Leung said. “If we’re in the wrong, we will. But we’re clearly not, so we’re not paying.”