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A corporation that claims it was singled out for mistreatment by government officials because its principals are of a particular religion can maintain a cause of action for violation of constitutional rights, a federal judge has ruled. U.S. District Judge Joseph Greenaway Jr., in Hassoun and Computers & Electronics Warehouse v. Cimmino, et al., No. 98-5530, allowed to stand a corporate plaintiff’s claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against the Middlesex County, N.J., Office of Consumer Affairs, Plainsboro police and other defendants who allegedly conspired against the company because its principals are Orthodox Jews. Citing as authority an out-of-state case, Gersman v. Group Health Assocs., 931 F.2d 1565 (D.C. Cir. 1991), that came to a similar conclusion, Greenaway wrote in his Dec. 22 opinion: “If the corporate entity CEW was harmed by being forced to defend scores of consumer fraud proceedings brought because of anti-Semitic animus toward its shareholders, Gersman, and common sense, counsel that it be permitted to assert an equal protection claim.” According to the opinion, the suit arises from consumer complaints regarding CEW’s customer service. The company routinely closed early for Sabbath observance on Friday afternoons and all day Saturdays. It also closes on Orthodox Jewish holidays. Due to complaints, defendant Florence Lotrowski, a Middlesex County deputy counsel, met with CEW employees at the Middlesex County Office of Consumer Affairs to discuss its customer service practices. Lotrowski also began inquiring about CEW’s owners and their religious backgrounds, the opinion states. The consumer affairs office eventually filed civil complaints against CEW in Plainsboro Municipal Court charging it with several violations of state consumer protection statutes and regulations, such as unconscionable commercial practices and advertising without intent to sell. Representing Lotrowski, Michael Stone, a partner with Hoagland, Longo, Moran, Dunst & Doukas in New Brunswick, N.J., declined to comment on the case because of the pending consumer fraud action. The plaintiffs contend that the consumer affairs office gave false information about CEW to third parties, alleging that it had hundreds of complaints leveled against it and that the company was its “worst offender.” Adding to CEW’s woes, store officials had several run-ins with Plainsboro, N.J., police. In a Nov. 2, 1999, incident, Plainsboro Officer Judith Henderson responded to a customer complaint, leading to an altercation with CEW’s manager in which she allegedly sprayed him with pepper spray. Six weeks later, more than a dozen Plainsboro police raided the store demanding to open and inspect merchandise, which CEW says voided the manufacturers’ warranties. As a result of those allegations, Judge Greenaway granted leave to amend the complaint to add various Plainsboro defendants, including Henderson, Plainsboro Police Chief and Public Safety Director David Lyon and the township itself. At the same time, Greenaway granted judgment for the defendant on claims of malicious use of process and civil rights claims that the plaintiffs suffered property damage and were deprived of property rights without due process. The surviving claims are those alleging conspiracy and violation of equal protection on account of religion. Greenaway allowed a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against the Plainsboro defendants only. Greenaway said the conspiracy charge could remain so long as it was not asserted in bad faith, which he had not found in this case. Greenaway also ruled in favor of the defendants on allegations of malicious use of process. The plaintiffs claimed that Lotrowski improperly launched consumer fraud actions against CEW, causing the company to lose business and spend money to defend against the charges. However, Greenaway ruled that the CEW’s claim was insufficient under Section 1983 because it was based on violation of a “generalized notion of substantive due process,” and not an explicit constitutional protection. In addition, Greenaway stated that CEW failed to allege a sufficient special grievance required to sustain a malicious-prosecution charge. Greenaway rejected the plaintiffs’ move to add as a defendant Lawrence Cimmino, the director of the Middlesex Office of Consumer Affairs, since Section 1983 does not impute vicarious liability to mere supervisory duties. The attorney for the plaintiff, Dennis Durkin, a partner with Durkin & Durkin in West Caldwell, N.J., could not be reached for comment because he was on vacation. The lawyer for Middlesex County Office of Consumer Affairs, Lori Dvorak of Lynch Martin in North Brunswick, was also on vacation.

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