After years of strained relations, neighbors on North Huntington Drive in El Sereno could be headed to court now that one the parties has filed a lawsuit seeking over $1 million in damages from a local charter school and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
Attorneys for the owners of El Sereno restaurant “Hecho en Mexico Authentic Mexican Cuisine LLC” (Hecho En Mexico) on Monday served its neighbor, charter school “Semillas Sociedad Civil” (Semillas), its operators and affiliated groups and individuals, with the lawsuit filed on June 7. They had previously served LAUSD, which is listed as a defendant because it authorized the charter school’s operation.
One of the main defendants called the lawsuit “frivolous,” and the owners have no proof to back their claims.
The suit alleges that since 2009, when Semillas’ opened its now defunct restaurant Xokolatl Café, LLC, school leadership, including Executive Director and Principal Marcos Aguilar, began to interfere with Hecho En Mexico’s business with the goal to “ultimately seize the opportunity to operate the restaurant for themselves.”
The complaint alleges that Semillas affiliates have repeatedly and maliciously interfered the restaurant’s ability to do business by making it impossible for customers to park during peak business hours and creating a noise nuisance that has driven customers sway.
It further alleges that the school has allowed students to use the parking area as a playground, interfering with the restaurant’s ability to use covered patio seating because the noise and activity bothers customers. The school has also encouraged students to enter the restaurant’s property and climb on top of a metal patio roof to retrieve balls, causing damage to the roof and related drains, and exposing students to potential injuries, according to the complaint.
Perhaps the most damaging claim is the allegation that Semillas has engaged in a campaign of “false allegations” to damage the restaurant’s and owner’s reputations. Specifically, the complaint alleges that Semillas falsely claimed the restaurant encouraged drug and alcohol use among minors, including Semillas students. It says people affiliated with the school have accused one of the owners of being a pervert taking photos of children, and one of the plaintiff’s cars being vandalized with the words “no mas fotos” (no more photos). Semillas is alleged to have engaged launched a boycott of the restaurant aimed at driving customers away.
“We both immigrated from Mexico decades ago, became U.S. citizens and are trying to build the American dream. Now it has become a nightmare,” said Connie Castro, who with her husband Jorge Bravo owns the restaurant. “We could have pursued business opportunities in South Pasadena or Alhambra, but we chose to stay in El Sereno because we wanted to help make the community better,” she said in a written statement.
The site where Hecho en Mexico is located has been a restaurant since 1950. Castro and Bravo purchased the restaurant in 2004 and claim that business had been growing at about 10% a year, but has “plummeted by 50% since Semillas began its campaign against the restaurant.” The owners claim they have been forced to layoff employees and cut worker’s hours as a result of Semillas’ disruptive actions.
“All my clients want is to be left alone to operate a community institution in the same manner it has operated for decades without trouble… The decision to go to court was long, hard and carefully considered, and we are confident the court will remedy the situation,” said Thomas W. Dressler, the attorney representing Hecho en Mexico.
Aguilar, who along with his wife Minnie Ferguson, Tzicatl Community Development Corporation (TCDC), Xokolatl Café LLC, and 1-100 John Does who aided and abetted the wrongful acts, are listed as defendants in the lawsuit along with LAUSD.
Earlier this week, in an email responding to EGP’s request for comment on the lawsuit, Aguilar asked, “How is a frivolous lawsuit newsworthy?” but later emailed a statement responding to the lawsuit that also included a copy of a September 2012 letter to the Department of Beverage Control in which Aguilar issues a complaint regarding Hecho en Mexico’s liquor license.
According the statement, Semillas administrators and parents have been asking elected officials and oversight authorities to intervene and investigate “the nature of Hecho en Mexico’s after-hours adult entertainment for over two years.”
The release states that they believe Hecho de Mexico’s complaint is without merit, and “…Semillas has pledged to continue to hold Hecho en Mexico accountable for filing this frivolous lawsuit.”
“Hecho en Mexico has presented no evidence to correlate their alleged decline in business to the supposed activities by Semillas. Furthermore, given the climate of a recession, a depressed business corridor, and rising levels of unemployment in the restaurant industry, we feel their allegations are unfounded. To the contrary, Semillas has been a leader in the community, revitalizing blighted buildings and reinforcing a decades-old moratorium on the proliferation of liquor licenses in El Sereno,” said Marcos Aguilar, Semillas’ executive director.
UCLA professor and president of the Semillas Council of Trustees, Dr. Juan Gomez Quinones, adds that he finds it unfortunate that the restaurant owners feel singled out. “This issue is more about school safety and adequate oversight of conditional liquor licenses around neighborhood schools which operate outside of those conditions,” Quinones said.
Aguilar goes on to state that the restaurant’s “adult-oriented entertainment, such as strip teases and general debauchery” next to the school is outside the scope of the liquor license and has resulted in the school having to scale back on after school programming.
“Semillas is an educational organization dedicated to academic excellence for inner-city students. We have no interest in operating this restaurant as alleged by the complainants,” Aguilar added.
Semillas Community Schools is composed of two sites on Huntington Drive, one at 4976 Huntington Drive, next door to Hecho en Mexico; the other located down the street at 4736 Huntington Drive. The charter school operators have been operating an elementary school at one site and a high school at the other.
Last week, LAUSD denied the high school’s charter renewal despite the school having earned a six-year accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and five year re-authorization by the International Baccalaureate organization. School officials expressed concerns over Anahuacalmecac high school’s finances, under enrollment, and uneven academic progress, among other issues.