- The $55 million lawsuit filed against the Town of Southampton by owners of The Hampton Bays Diner on grounds that town police violated their civil rights by instigating 18 months of police monitoring of a weekly "Latino" inspired dance night has spotlighted allegations of anti-Hispanic sentiment.
The popular weekly entertainment has since been canceled as a result of the on-going "harassment" from the town's police department and code enforcement personnel according to Andrew Campanelli, the attorney representing the Diner's long-time owners in the lawsuit.
The well-known diner owned and operated by Frank and Maria Vlahadamis for the past 25 years, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is located on Montauk Highway where the heavily traveled road intersects with Route 27 - a main transportation artery to the South Fork. The recently revamped chrome and glass eatery has been a backdrop to many visitors to the East End. News of the lawsuit and the town's actions against the diner's owners has stunned regular patrons and many of the business neighbors in the Hampton Bays hamlet center.
As is customary, the diner serves up bacon and eggs to early risers at the crack of dawn, then caters to a lunch and dinner crowd as the day turns to evening. It is the kind of place where you can always get a piece of pie and a cup of coffee at a reasonable price in a new millennium version of the classic roadside American diner. Vlahadamis and his wife have operated the Hampton Bays landmark throughout the last two decades without incident.
The Vlahadamis' expanded their operation a few years ago, adding a sports bar to try to enhance their business during the off season winter months when a steady stream of daytime customers can always be relied on, but the evening diner crowd falls off. "The sports bar did not draw the way they hoped," Campanelli said. "Then the Latinos began to come in because they felt welcome." The Vlahadamis's decided to try to capture this market.
The multi-million dollar lawsuit filed by the owners marks the second time in less than 10 years that the Town has been sued for staggering amounts based on the alleged questionable actions of town employees.
The long-time owners of the Diner claim the popular roadside establishment has
been targeted by local police for the last 18 months because of a well attended
"Latino" Night featuring Latino inspired food and music.
The weekly event has been canceled.
"They raised three children in the community," Campanelli said, referring to his clients as town employees were still receiving notification of the lawsuit. "For me, as for my clients, litigation is the last resort. The town has given us no choice but to take action. What else can you do when the local police come barging into your place cursing you out?"
Town employees were named in the lawsuit, including Southampton Town Police Sergeant James Kiernan and Stephen A. Franco of the town's code enforcement department, who were being served this week. Campanelli reportedly arranged to put the defendants on notice in an unobtrusive manner after speaking with Southampton Town Attorney Daniel L. Adams before filing.
"I wanted to serve them in the least disruptive manner possible," Campanelli explained, noting the defendants named in the lawsuit were not served at their homes in the early morning hours or while they were on their jobs during the day, a tactic frequently used by attorneys bringing actions on behalf of their clients.
The lawsuit also names nine John Doe defendants. "I will get to the bottom of this when we go to deposition," Campanelli said, "then we will know who is responsible for these actions and why this is happening to law abiding business owners."
Intentional Conduct At Question
The allegations of civil rights violations occurring as a result of the actions attributed to the town's Police Department and code enforcement officers were denied by Town Supervisor Linda Kabot
. In a statement issued this week by Kabot's legislative aide Ryan Horn, both Kabot and Town Attorney Adams described the claim that the Town was targeting Hispanics as "absurd."
"Beyond that, the town is not planning to comment on the substance of the case," the press statement reads. "This is the general rule we follow when the town is involved in litigation." The statement sent out by Horn on July 22 noted that all the defendants named in the lawsuit had not yet been served.
According to Campanelli, the town police engaged in an on-going pattern of harassment and intimidation against the diner by blocking their exits with four police cars, planting undercover police officers in the men's room to try to make drug deals, and coercing a forced confession from Frank Vlahadamis by threatening to padlock the doors at the start of the Memorial Day weekend this year.
The diner has a large, book-like menu with five pages of offerings for customers to select from, including Greek specialties, as well as an entire page devoted to "Latino" inspired cuisine featuring burritos, enchiladas, and other selections. Hamburgers, fried flounder, and omelets are also available most of the day. The prices are reasonable and the service is fast. The diner competes with a nearby Friendly's, a McDonald's, and several eateries that feature similar fare.
Southampton Town Attorney Daniel L. Adams agreed to arrange for service
of town employees named in a $55 million lawsuit alleging civil rights
violations. Photo by Andrea Aurichio
The "Hispanic Nights" were a hit from the start. "That's when their problems began," Campanelli said. "The town began to use intimidation tactics right from the start. Four police cars showed up one night and blocked all the exits. The people inside were afraid to leave."
According to Campanelli, the diner has a state of the art security system on-site that includes 22 surveillance cameras. "We have this on tape," Campanelli said of the police squad car incident. The attorney also contends the police prominently displayed "their guns" as they visited the diner in an effort to intimidate patrons.
Surveillance cameras, however, are not in the men's room and, according to Campanelli, the restrooms were the site of the next operation in which "police repeatedly sent in an undercover cop to stand in the men's room and ask someone to sell him drugs."
Eventually this operation "succeeded," and the police were able to make a drug bust at the diner as a result. Although no arrests were made on the premises, the undercover police officer purchased drugs in the men's room on Sept. 3, Sept. 17 and Oct. 8, 2006. Armed with this information, the Southampton Town Police Department took the diner to task with the New York State Liquor Authority seeking revocation of the diner's liquor license.
The case was successfully defended by Campanelli who appeared before a New York State administrative law judge on behalf of his clients. The court noted the diner's owners had done everything in their power to prevent drug dealing on the premises.
Campanelli also successfully defended his clients when town officials brought charges against Vlahadamis claiming health violations had been committed when a cesspool cover was temporarily removed while the diner's owners were reportedly in the process of a pump-out operation to correct the problem.
Finally, police appeared at the diner at the start of the Memorial Day Weekend contending Vlahadamis was operating an illegal nightclub. According to Campanelli, police coerced his client into signing a confession by threatening to padlock the diner at the start of peak summer weekend.
"We have 25 witnesses who were in the diner when the police barged in," Campanelli said as he discussed the coerced confession. He then recounted a series of forceful expletives he claims the police used in their discourse.
Several restaurants located along Montauk Highway in the downtown hamlet center offer live nighttime entertainment, particularly during the summer months when local bar bands are featured. None of those restaurants have been targeted by police enforcement.
"None of these restaurants are playing "Latin" music," Campanelli pointed out. "It is clear that the town has coordinated these attacks based on an anti-Hispanic sentiment."
Court Intervened In Previous Suit
Campanelli's Mineola based law firm has successfully taken on the Town of Southampton in a multi-million dollar lawsuit before, most notably in what is now referred to as the Stop-and-Shop case. This lawsuit also took the town to task for the alleged and highly questionable activities of town officials and employees.
Campanelli filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court on behalf of his client, the Hampton Bays Connection (HBC) eight years ago, after members of the Southampton Town Planning Board told his client Gabriel Ariola (HBC) they would refuse to give him permission to build an ambulatory-surgical center on Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays if he proceeded with plans requesting a variance to build a McDonald's on a portion of a large tract of land he owned on Montauk Highway.
The Planning Board's refusal to grant approval for the ambulatory-surgical center and the delays involved in the process caused Ariola to lose a $17 million lease agreement with Stony Brook Medical Center prompting him to file a lawsuit against the town seeking restitution. The lawsuit, filed by Campanelli in Federal District Court, sought $25 million in damages from the town, maintaining Ariola's constitutional rights had been violated when the Planning Board delayed his application because he had proceeded with the McDonald's project.
The court encouraged the town to settle the case on the third day of the trial when both sides hammered out a court ordered settlement that granted Ariloa the right to build a 25,000 square-foot Stop and Shop on the site as compensation for the loss of the ambulatory-surgical property. In return, Ariola dropped his lawsuit against the township.
"I don't think the town's insurance policy will cover a settlement in this case," Campanelli said, referring to the diner case. "This is intentional conduct. Their insurance might pay for their defense for a short time but the town will have to pay a settlement if we get a judgment against them. "We will be prepared to hold depositions in Federal District Court in Central Islip," Campanelli added. "This stinks to high heaven."