One of more than a dozen East Patchogue businesses cited with code violations as part of a Brookhaven cleanup campaign has filed a federal lawsuit against the town.
TLM Suffolk Enterprises, a garage and open-air auto sales business in an industrial section of Montauk Highway, says in court papers the town has sought to put the company out of business despite having previously granted the business permission to operate.
The suit, filed May 27 in Central Islip federal court, seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court declaration that TLM is operating legally.
TLM was one of 15 East Patchogue businesses cited by Brookhaven in August 2017 with various town code violations. The citations were issued shortly after the town was awarded a $25,000 state grant for that purpose.
At the time, Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine called the businesses "illegal junkyards" and said the grant would help town code enforcement officials "strengthen their efforts to clean them up or even close them down."
In an interview, TLM's attorneys said the town cracked down on the businesses to justify having received the grant.
“They just started handing out tickets like cotton candy to everybody," said Patricia Stern, a Nesconset lawyer representing TLM with her husband, Fredrick P. Stern. "They’re trying to apply today’s code to something that's already been grandfathered in … just so they could get this ... grant.”
Town spokesman Kevin Molloy on Monday said the town doesn't comment on litigation.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Raymond J. Dearie. An initial hearing has not been scheduled, Fredrick Stern said.
TLM has been in business since the early 1950s, predating many of the town's current codes for industrial areas, court papers say.
In 1979, a previous owner was granted a certificate of existing use by the town. The Sterns said that document allows TLM to operate without conforming with current codes.
In March 2017, a town building inspector issued TLM a letter stating the business could operate a car sales and repair shop. Days later, the town tried to revoke the letter, court papers say.
A 2018 town hearing on the dispute found in favor of TLM, Fredrick Stern said.
The legal dispute has hampered TLM owner Tim Murphy's ability to run the business and eventually sell it, the lawyers said. Murphy faces thousands of dollars in fines as well as steep legal costs, they said.
“He’s gotta worry about being cited for doing the same work they’ve been doing on the property for 50 or 60 years,” Fredrick Stern said. “He’s trying to sell the business and retire. ... Nobody wants to buy it from him” while he’s facing charges.
The shop has reopened with limited service after closing because of the coronavirus pandemic, the lawyers said.