Newark, state officials seek dismissal of lawsuit over Arena Bar and fatal shooting

By Bill Wichert | The Star-Ledger
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on August 24, 2014

Owners of the now-defunct Arena Bar on Mulberry Street are suing Newark and state officials for allegedly confiscating the restaurant's liquor license in 2012, ultimately causing the business to close and the property to land in foreclosure.


NEWARK — In the wake of a fatal shooting in 2012 near the Arena Bar on Mulberry Street, the property owners claim Newark officials took away their liquor license for six weeks, ultimately causing them to close the business and end up in foreclosure.

But city and state officials say they are not responsible for the business’ demise and are asking a federal judge to dismiss the owners’ lawsuit against them.

The legal battle over the once-popular watering hole — located near the Prudential Center — stems from the May 14, 2012, shooting of two off-duty juvenile detention officers.

One of the officers, Quinton Brown, who had worked at the Union County Detention Center, died from his injuries.

In their lawsuit, property owners Antonio Rodrigues and John Brito claim city officials caused them to go out of business by taking their liquor license and creating the negative impression the shooting was connected to the restaurant.

The day after the shooting, Newark representatives confiscated the license and continued to withhold it until June 26, 2012, the lawsuit says.

Those actions “further tainted plaintiffs’ reputation and created the appearance that the shooting incident was somehow related to the Arena Bar,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit claims the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office “found no evidence that … the incident had any relationship whatsoever to Arena Bar.”

As a result of the negative impression, however, the owners argue they were unable to secure certain insurance coverage to remain open. The lawsuit does not specify when the business closed and when the foreclosure proceedings began.

The lawsuit — which names Newark and the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control as defendants — was initially filed on April 29 in state Superior Court, but it was transferred last month to federal court.

In recent weeks, city and state attorneys have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit’s claims against each defendant.

“The City denies that it did anything in violation of the Constitution or that it denied Plaintiffs their due process rights with respect to this confiscated license,” according to a brief filed by Newark officials.

In their brief, city officials also assert that Newark cannot be held liable because state law “provides absolute immunity for public entities in the issuance, denial, suspension or revocation of a permit or license.”

To support their argument, Newark officials cited a 1978 decision by the state Supreme Court, which reads in part:

“In this State there are literally millions of licenses, certificates, permits and the like applied for, issued, renewed or denied. … The purpose of the immunity is to protect the licensing function and permit it to operate free from possible harassment and the threat of tort liability.”

State officials also pointed to such immunity and claimed that the state had no role in the alleged confiscation of the restaurant’s liquor license. Under state law, Newark has been granted the authority to issue and enforce liquor licenses.

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