A Federal Court judge in Newark has dismissed a civil rights lawsuit brought by the Brooklyn-based bakery that once had planned to move to Secaucus.
The decision ends a long and contentious legal battle between Damascus Bakery, Secaucus, and various current and former town officials.
“Summary judgment was granted in favor of the Town of Secaucus, as well as the Secaucus Municipal Utilities Authority (SMUA), as well as all of the individual defendants,” said attorney Thomas Kobin, of the firm of Chasan Leyner & Lamparello, who defended Secaucus in the matter. “The case was fully dismissed.”
The lawsuit specifically named the Town of Secaucus; the SMUA; former Mayor Dennis Elwell; Construction Code Official and State Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, an Elwell ally; Fire Code Official Vincent Massaro; and former Town Attorney Frank Leanza.
The case dates back more than three years, when Damascus Bakery decided to relocate its growing operations to an old warehouse at 10 Enterprise Ave. In March of that year, Damascus signed a lease with Hartz Mountain Industries and applied for a zoning permit from the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), a state agency that has zoning jurisdiction over 88 percent of the land in Secaucus. The NJMC approved the bakery’s zoning request and Damascus applied for a local building permit.
“From the beginning, our concern was the safety and welfare of the people who lived in the area and the school children.” – Dennis Elwell
Residents and town officials were particularly concerned about the warehouse’s close proximity to several homes and Clarendon School, and the town filed a lawsuit to prevent the bakery from moving to the Enterprise Ave. address.
The bakery’s owners, Edward and David Mafoud, later alleged they were subjected to “political maneuvering, stonewalling, and corruption,” which held up the approval of their building permit and forced them to find another home for their business. They further alleged that they lost more than $5 million because they were unable to move to the larger space and expand the business as planned. Officials here denied the town subjected their application to extra scrutiny because the Mafouds are Arab Americans of Lebanese descent.
Anthony Laura, the attorney for Damascus Bakery, said Thursday that had not had a change to read through and reflect on the decision and had no comment at this time.
Judge: Many allegations, little proof
In a 13-page decision dated Aug. 25, U.S. District Court Judge William J. Martini ruled that Damascus Bakery failed to provide proof to support the allegations in the lawsuit.
“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Damascus,” Martini wrote, “the court finds that [the] defendants’ behavior does not ‘shock the conscience’ or lack a rational basis, such that it rises to the level of a constitutional violation.”
Throughout the ruling, Martini examined each allegation made by the bakery, looked at the evidence used to support each one, and reflected on whether the bakery met the necessary legal standard to support its case.
For example, the judge concluded that even though the town raised problems with the fire lane and insufficient parking three months after the building permit had been approved, that wasn’t enough to prove the delays were done to derail the bakery’s application.
Similarly, Damascus had argued that the town treated its building application differently than those submitted by other bakeries. To back up this claim, Damascus supplied two Certificates of Occupancy that Secaucus had issued to Daisy Bakery at 35 UPS Drive and H&H Bagels. But Judge Martini wrote that, “Beyond the assertion that baking occurs at each facility, there is nothing in the record to demonstrate that [Damascus], H&H Bagels, and Daisy Bakery are alike in all relevant aspects,” as had been alleged by Damascus’s attorney.
Even Mayor Elwell’s claim that Damascus Bakery posed a serious fire hazard, Martini ruled, did not “shock the conscience,” which is part of the legal standard in cases where a plaintiff claims that government officials’ actions are alleged to be arbitrary.
July 2009 corruption sting, Gonnelli v. Secaucus not evidence
Interestingly, the attorney for Damascus Bakery had tried to use Elwell’s corruption bust last summer and current Mayor Michael Gonnelli’s own lawsuit against the town as evidence of rampant “cronyism and corruption” in Secaucus government throughout 2007 and 2008, the period of time when the bakery was in discussion with town officials.
But Judge Martini rejected both as evidence.
In his case against the town, Gonnelli, a former NJMC commissioner, had alleged that he and his wife, a former town employee, were subjected to retaliation by Elwell and others after Gonnelli voted against Elwell’s interests on the NJMC.
Martini ruled that “evidence derived from [the Elwell] criminal complaint…is hearsay…The same holds true for those allegations contained in a civil complaint filed in the case of Gonnelli v. Twp. Of Secaucus…The allegations derived from these two inadmissible exhibits…may not be considered by the court …since there is no independently admissible record [of] evidence regarding these points.”
Elwell reacts to news
“From the beginning, our concern was the safety and welfare of the people who lived in the area and the school children,” former Mayor Elwell said shortly after Martini’s ruling was released to the public. “After a point, everyone ended up agreeing with us. Even the NJMC ended up changing how similar approvals would be handed on their end in the future. Now, obviously, there was an investment made by the bakery, and they were trying to recoup it. But implications that we were anti-Arab or Anti-Muslim weren’t true. That wasn’t the case.”
In the fall of 2008, the NJMC passed a resolution requiring the agency to hold public hearings when considering zoning applications that involve hazardous materials.
Both Elwell and Gonnelli have stated that efforts were made to find another suitable site for Damascus Bakery after 10 Enterprise Ave. fell through. However, other sites may not have been available in Secaucus, and Damascus had effectively given up plans to move here by October 2008.
“I’m glad it’s over, and I’m glad it didn’t cost us any money,” said Mayor Gonnelli. “There was no award that we had to pay out and all our legal fees were covered by [insurance].”
Damascus Bakery is currently in talks to take over a warehouse lease in North Bergen.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.