The City of New Brunswick impermissibly blocked a bar owner’s efforts to open a restaurant and sports bar to be named “Buck Foston’s,” according to a New Jersey jury. It awarded plaintiff Lawrence D. Blatterfein more than $1.5 million for the violation of his First Amendment rights.
The Facts of the Case
According to court documents, Lawrence D. Blatterfein purchased property at Routes 1 and 18, which is the site of the former Benningan’s Restaurant, with the intent to open a sports bar called Buck Foston’s Road House. The name of the establishment is a not so subtle reference to the long-standing sports rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.
The financing of the project was contingent upon successfully obtaining a liquor license. After negotiating the purchase of an existing license, Blatterfein’s business, Buck Foston’s New Brunswick LLC, filed an application for a liquor license transfer. According to the complaint, the New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill and Councilman Robert Recine met several times during the course of the application process to discuss the “Buck Foston’s” project, including its name. Recine also prepared a legal memorandum on potential First Amendment issues raised by the name of the bar, which was allegedly unprecedented with regard to the municipality’s consideration of a liquor license.
When the application came up for final consideration by the City Council, it was denied by a vote of 2 to 1, even though the bulk of the evidence presented supported its approval. While the New Brunswick police department raised concerns about increasing the capacity of the establishment, the New Jersey Department of Transportation and a private traffic-engineering firm all testified that it would not adversely impact the traffic in the area and the city’s fire and engineering officials confirmed that the layout of the building was safe.
The Legal Issues
Blatterfein and his business subsequently filed a lawsuit in federal court, which named the City of New Brunswick, Mayor Cahill, and Councilman Recine as defendants. The complaint specifically alleged that the defendants denied the application for a liquor license transfer in retaliation for the plaintiffs’ exercise of commercial speech protected by the First Amendment in naming their proposed restaurant “Buck Foston’s.”
Meanwhile, the defendants contended that the denial of the liquor license was justified based on concerns with alterations to the internal layout of the building and increases in traffic resulting from the increased occupancy. They specifically challenged the causal link between the plaintiffs’ protected conduct and the alleged retaliation. To establish the elements of a retaliation claim predicated on the First Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiffs must show “(1) that they engaged in a protected activity, (2) that defendants’ retaliatory action was sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his or her rights, and (3) that there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the retaliatory action.”
After deliberating for five hours, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, awarding him $1.535 million dollars in damages. The parties ultimately agreed to settle the suit for $1.4 million after the verdict was returned.
As this case highlights, claims of retaliation can be costly for New Jersey municipalities. Accordingly, it is imperative to ensure that all license and permit denials are supported by sufficient facts and legal analysis.
For more information about this case or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.