A jury awarded the former owner of an Oyster Bay cafe $1.3 million on Wednesday for violations of his right to due process by the Town of Oyster Bay and a former town official.
The jury verdict in civil case brought in the U.S. Eastern District Court in Central Islip found that former Oyster Bay Planning and Development Commissioner Frederick Ippolito was personally liable for denying Café Al Dente owner Philip Morizio his 14th Amendment right to due process when the town padlocked his restaurant in 2013. The jury also found the town and building inspector Gary Blanchard were liable.
Morizio’s attorney John Palmer of Mineola said that Ippolito had “engaged in an abuse of power that the jury found shocked the conscience.”
Attorney Richard Hutchinson of Oyster Bay, who also represented Morizio, said the jury verdict after the three-day trial recognized “the long term pattern of abuse that Ippolito was inflicting on people when he was running the planning department.”
The verdict said that Ippolito was personally liable to pay Morizio $650,000 in punitive damages and Blanchard was personally liable to pay $1 in punitive damages. The jury found that that Ippolito, Blanchard and the town were jointly liable to pay an additional $650,000 in compensatory damages.
Ippolito was forced out of his job this year after pleading guilty in a felony federal tax evasion case. He is due to be sentenced next month.
The town had alleged that Morizio had failed to resolve building and health violations at the restaurant in the hamlet of Oyster Bay for 18 months, Newsday has previously reported.
“A three-year nightmare is over,” Morizio said in an interview Thursday. But he said his celebratory mood was tempered by the fact that the jury award hasn’t been paid yet.
“I got a good night’s sleep and so did my wife for the first time in three years,” Morizio said. “We’ll take it day by day right now.”
The town’s outside legal counsel, Christopher Kendric of Garden City-based Kendric Law Group PC, said he made a motion after the verdict on Wednesday to overturn it on the grounds that it was contrary to the law.
“It was also against the weight of the credible evidence,” Kendric said.
Ippolito’s criminal defense lawyer, Brian Griffin, of Garden City-based Foley Griffin LLP, did not return requests for comment.
Kendric said the monetary award didn’t make sense.
“I have to come to the conclusion that the jury did not understand what they were awarding,” Kendric said. He said U.S. District Court Judge Leonard D. Wexler gave them 30 days to file a memorandum to argue for overturning the jury verdict.
Palmer argued that Ippolito shuttered Café Al Dente in retaliation for Morizio going around him to approach Town Supervisor John Venditto directly to try to get permission to renovate his restaurant to be in a reality television show on the Food Network.
Morizio said the network had been ready to work with Ippolito to address any problems, but the commissioner wouldn’t meet with them.
“The restaurant and the town would have been featured nationwide,” Morizio said. “It would have been the greatest thing that ever happened in my life.”
The town padlocked the restaurant on the grounds that a dangerous condition existed but, according to the suit, didn’t identify those conditions and the town board didn’t give him a hearing when petitioned by Morizio, as required by law.
Palmer said this was an abuse of power that deprived Morizio of his right to due process and his livelihood.
Morizio, who owned Café Al Dente for 20 years, said he wants to open another restaurant in Oyster Bay.