22 Aug 2014
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Seaside Park Settles Suit With Former Bar Owner for $2.5M

Racially-charged lawsuit named more than 50 borough employees

Seaside Park Settles Suit With Former Bar Owner for $2.5M

Seaside Park has settled a lawsuit brought against the borough by the former owner of a boardwalk bar.

The $2.5 million settlement marks an end to the racially-charged claim against the borough, which named as defendants more than 50 borough employees and former employees, including a number of police officers and elected officials.

Stephen D’Onofrio, the former owner of the Sawmill Cafe - located on the boardwalk near the borough's border with Seaside Heights - charged in a 160 page court filing that borough officials and police conspired to run him out of town after his establishment hosted a 2004 concert by rapper Method Man.

The lawsuit claimed the plan to drive the bar away even had a name: "The Program."

"The Program was a living nightmare for my family and me," D'Onofrio said in a statement to Patch, claiming that officials were not comfortable with black artists performing at the bar, which served as the motivation behind a number of borough actions.

Seaside Park claimed for years that D’Onofrio invited the scrutiny of the police, planning, zoning and building departments after he made alleged misrepresentations to the planning board about the use of the Green Room, an upstairs venue capable of hosting concerts. The borough maintained that D’Onofrio was operating a club rather than a bar, against the terms of an expansion authorized in 2001. D’Onofrio countered that the bar had hosted live entertainment for more than two decades.

For a time in 2006, the borough's planning board revoked the bar's certificate of occupancy over the nightclub versus bar issue.

"The Program," the lawsuit claimed, also consisted of restrictions placed on Sawmill's liquor license and heavy regulation of the Green Room, including an edict that tables and chairs were not able to be moved. There were also altercations between bar employees and police, culminating in D’Onofrio driving to the mayor's home one night after the bar's manager had been "bloodied" in one such altercation.

Kevin Kopacko, the manager involved in that altercation, filed his own lawsuit against the borough that was eventually settled for $250,000.

The borough also required thousands of dollars in payments for "alcoholic beverage ID cards" for staff which were never delivered, the suit claimed.

Eventually, the borough passed an ordinance forcing Sawmill to close its doors at midnight, a decision that remains in effect to this day despite the fact that the business now has a new owner.

Philip Davolos of the law firm of Chance and McCann, of Bridgeton, filed the suit, which is attached to this article.

The settlement, which will be paid by the borough's insurance carrier, is believed by the plaintiff in the case to be the largest payout of its kind in borough history.

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