Cary Wiggins (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

A long-established Ethiopian restaurant has sued DeKalb County and Commissioner Jeff Rader and other defendants claiming it was racially targeted for code enforcement violations.

Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant claims it is among the targets of a conspiracy to force restaurants owned and frequented by Ethiopians, Eritreans and other East African nationals out of Rader’s west DeKalb district.

The complaint filed in federal court in Atlanta this past Friday said county fire and code officials launched an enforcement crackdown for minor violations that shut down the Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant in March, while white-owned restaurants that serve primarily white patrons are given a pass for the same offenses.

Sheba had been in operation since 1998.

The complaint and its author, Cary Wiggins of the Wiggins Law Group, said the underlying basis for the county’s enforcement push is a 2008 zoning amendment setting up new requirements for “late night establishments and night clubs” within 1,500 feet of a residential property.

A ”special land use permit” (SLUP) is required for such establishments that operate past 12:30 a.m.

“Sheba and many of the other Ethiopian restaurants were—or should have been—grandfathered as of 2008,” said Wiggins in response to several emailed questions. Sheba continued to serve food and alcohol and feature a DJ and dancing until 3:55 a.m. on weeknights and 2:55 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, as permitted by the county’s alcohol code, until early this year.

Wiggins said county officials began targeting the Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants in Rader’s district around 2014 or 2015.

“The uptick in code enforcement seems to track the uptick in social media marketing by the restaurants, especially those promoting hookah lounges,” he said.

Sheba was formerly operating under an occupancy license allowing up to 200 people.

“It has been told that it can re-open if it stops serving alcoholic beverages by 12:30 a.m. and keeps its occupancy below 100 persons, but that is not a viable option for Sheba,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins said Ethiopian restaurants in other commission districts “have not been subjected to the same level or type of code enforcement.”

The civil rights action says racial bias is behind the campaign and includes constitutional claims for violations of Sheba’s equal protection, due process and free speech rights, and for race discrimination and conspiracy to interfere with Sheba’s civil rights.

Other defendants include Super District 6 Commissioner Kathie Gannon, Fire Marshal Joseph Cox, Fire Inspector John Jewett, Planning Director Andrew Baker, COO and Acting Finance Director Zachary Williams and Chief Building Officer David Adams, all of whom are named in their individual and official capacities.

The complaint said Sheba’s problems began this past December when fire and code enforcement officials began “regularly visiting Sheba.”

In January, Jewett cited Sheba “for an assortment of petty infractions” and told the restaurant manager “he was there to find a way to shut it down,” according to the complaint.

Sheba was cited “multiple” times over the next three months for alleged fire code violations, culminating in a March 25 “Notice of Fire Hazard” instructing the restaurant to shut down immediately and get approval from the fire marshal or planning department before reopening.

“Every fire hazard issue identified by the county was promptly corrected,” the complaint said, but it has still been denied permission to reopen.

About 10 Ethiopian restaurants have been located in District 2 since 2015, according to the complaint.

The complaint said Rader, “acting in concert with the other defendants and certain citizens of the county,” began targeting his district’s Ethiopian restaurants “for heightened enforcement of facially-neutral ordinances regulating commercial establishments. The goal was to severely cripple or terminate those businesses.”

Restaurants targeted included Day & Night, Aroma Lounge, Arif Lounge, Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant, Mint Ultra Lounge, Therapy Lounge, Food Therapy and Pure, it said.

Two were forced to move or close, one lost its lease, “and the others are barely staying afloat because Commissioner Rader will not approve a SLUP for them,” the complaint said.

In contrast, it said, “alcohol-licensed restaurants in District 2 catering to predominately white late-night clientele have not been subjected” to the increased scrutiny.

The complaint points to Benchwarmers Sports Grill on Clairmont Road, which was cited for multiple violations but allowed to continue staying open until 4 a.m., and Tin Lizzy’s off Clifton Road was issued a SLUP allowing it to stay open until 4 a.m., “even though the business shares property with hundreds of apartments and condominium units.”

“The defendants have acted, and are acting, in full knowledge that their actions are oppressive and without authority of law,” according to the complaint.

Rader did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and county spokesman Andrew Cauthen said there would be no comment on the pending litigation.