Throwing another haymaker in a legal bout spanning years, a Morristown bar owner has put the town on notice that he plans to sue the mayor and a councilman in federal court under racketeering laws for their “cruel and malicious attacks” against his businesses.
In legal papers served on the town this week, Jimmy Cavanaugh claims his troubles began when he rejected Mayor Tim Dougherty as an early investor in the Iron Bar, and got worse when he sued the Morristown Parking Authority last year in a dispute over an alley behind the Iron Bar and Revolution, another bar he owns.
Cavanaugh accuses Dougherty; Councilman Stefan Armington, who he paints as a council proxy for the mayor; and the town of using police as a “private army (to) routinely lay siege” to his establishments by closing part of South Street to traffic during prime operating hours.
He further blasts the officials for “arbitrarily and unreasonably” imposing alcohol curfews on Revolution, and for killing his proposed Mexican restaurant, the Gran Cantina, by denying it a liquor license.
His declared intent to sue, called a tort claim, comes just days after the town filed an appeal challenging decisions by a judge and a state official who sided with Cavanaugh and overturned the curfews at Revolution.
“The complaint reads like a story by a person who has lost touch with reality. I can only think of one word to describe it — delusional,” Dougherty said of Cavanaugh’s claims.
The mayor noted the council makes all liquor license decisions. If Cavanaugh follows through with his threat, “we will certainly seek sanctions against him and his attorneys for filing such a frivolous lawsuit,” Dougherty said.
Armington declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Town Attorney Vij Pawar could not be reached for comment.
The town has six months to respond to the tort claim. Cavanaugh, who is represented by attorney Ryder Ulon of Schenck, Price in FLorham Park, then has 18 months to file his lawsuit.
It would seek an end to curfews and roadblocks, plus damages, according to the tort notice.
Officials have described the roadblocks as a safety precaution for large bar crowds who spill onto South Street at night.
Cavanaugh and Morristown have jousted over curfews since 2014. That’s when the council approved the Iron Bar’s expansion of its liquor license next door to what is now Revolution–with stipulations that no alcohol be served there after 11:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays or after 11 pm on Sundays through Thursdays.
Closing time for other Morristown bars is 2 am. But the council had fielded plenty of complaints from residents fed up with late-night antics by drunken patrons of downtown watering holes.
Cavanaugh, a former Essex County Freeholder, maintains the town is wasting tax dollars on these fights, which have cost him more than $150,000, according to his tort notice.
“One sure sign of insanity is making the same mistake over and over again and expecting the same result,” Cavanaugh said of the town.
He claims Dougherty, who he supported during his first mayoral campaign, asked to be an investor in the Iron Bar. When Cavanaugh said no, relations with the town soured, the owner contends.
Things got worse last year, he said, when he sued the Morristown Parking Authority–invoking the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)–in an ongoing dispute over an alley behind his bars.
“You —-ed with the wrong people,” Cavanaugh claims the mayor told him. Cavanaugh contends Dougherty gloated last year: “Remember that saying you kept telling me all those years ago, that you can’t fight city hall? Have you learned that yet?”
The relationship frayed further, Cavanaugh said, when he stopped hosting political functions for the three-term mayor.
‘NECESSARY AND PROPER’ CONDITIONS
Meanwhile, the town is asking the state appellate division to re-impose curfews at Revolution.
Revolution obtained several stays of those curfews, culminating in a June 28, 2018, order by the acting director of the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), J. Wesley Geiselman, striking down the conditions as discriminatory, “arbitrary and unreasonable.”
Geiselman based his directive on a Feb. 23 court ruling by Administrative Law Judge John P. Scollo.
Those decisions glossed over “widespread public opposition” to expanded bar activity in the neighborhood, attorney Denis Driscoll said in legal papers filed this month.
Geiselman was “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” in ignoring key evidence from a court hearing and usurping the town’s regulatory authority, the town contends.
And Judge Scollo’s opinion is unfair, the town insists, because it’s based solely on transcripts of 2017 testimony heard by another judge, who was transferred before issuing a ruling.
The record also included testimony from a former state ABC director while excluding the town planner, the appeal states.
In his decision, Scollo said he was persuaded by a lack of violations at either Iron Bar or Revolution; favorable testimony by police and fire officials; and by an absence of documentation to back complaints from 14 residents.
Morristown’s appeal further accuses Iron Bar LLC, the owner of Revolution, of falsely pitching Revolution as a “jazz-themed restaurant” instead of a beer hall when seeking permission to expand its license.
Councilman Robert Iannaccone, whose First Ward includes downtown bars, said the town’s appeal aims to preserve the ability of elected officials to protect their constituents.
“The town feels it did not get a fair trial at the Administrative Law level, and that the (state) ABC is overextending its powers by making rules” that should be made by the council, which is “most familiar with public sentiment and local conditions,” Iannaccone said.
The council doubles as Morristown’s alcoholic beverage commission, and its imposition of conditions on liquor licenses is “necessary and proper” to ensure the “rights of others who live and conduct business in the area,” the councilman said.
Restricting bar hours is an “effective strategy for reducing excessive alcohol consumption and related harms,” said Iannaccone, reflecting concerns voiced by residents at hearings for five applications to open or expand bars on South and DeHart streets since 2012.