By Tim Darragh
The operators of a shuttered halal meat processing facility in Perth Amboy can move ahead with their lawsuit charging that city and county officials shut down the plant because the owners are Muslim, a federal judge has ruled.
American Halal Live Poultry and its owner Wahid Abdul, filed the federal lawsuit earlier this year charging that that inspectors violated their constitutional rights and enforced regulations in a discriminatory fashion because they are Muslim. The defendants include the city, Middlesex County and nine code enforcement officials as well as unnamed police officers.
In a ruling this week, U.S. District Judge William J. Martini ruled that Abdul and his company could amend their original complaint but denied their request for a preliminary injunction.
The ruling could bring clarity to an argument that Martini said has many points in dispute.
According to court records Martini cited in his ruling, Abdul has operated the plant in Perth Amboy for the last five years. It has an adjacent duplex that Abdul rented, with the other side used for workers who use the space to sleep. The plant, records say, operated 24 hours a day.
Abdul charged in the complaint that city Councilman Fernando Gonzalez canvassed the neighborhood for citizen complaints about the business and told Abdul that he was going to put him "out of business."
Gonzalez declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
The plaintiffs say that they were issued numerous citations last year, alleging in unspecific charges that they violated cleanliness, zoning and property maintenance codes. Then in December, the business was denied a renewal of its food and beverage license, Martini's summary says.
Further, workers in the duplex were taken "into custody" and brought to a motel during a re-inspection, it says.
Non-Muslim businesses were not similarly targeted, the complaint says.
But Martini also noted that Perth Amboy in its response says inspectors were dispatched because neighbors complained of odors. They reportedly found "excessive flies, foul odors, feces, blood and animal refuse on the property," it said. The problems were left uncorrected, it said.
In addition, it said that "undocumented" workers, paid under the minimum wage, were found in the duplex in "deplorable living conditions."
Martini in his ruling allowed the company to expand its complaint. F. Michael Daily Jr., the lawyer for Abdul and the business, said the amended complaint will add more acts to bolster the charge of discriminatory acts.
Regarding the denial of the preliminary injunction, Daily said the company wants the city to tell it what it needs to do to reopen. "We'll do it," he said.
Alex J. Keoskey, lead attorney for the defendants, did not comment.
In a reply filed in April, the defendants denied any discriminatory intent, saying they operated in good faith.
In the meantime, Martini wrote, further arguments will be needed to determine a number of issues: whether the company complied with building, health and safety codes as well as labor and wage laws; whether it received proper notice of code violations and had an opportunity to appeal; whether the duplex was searched legally and whether the inspectors were motivated by "discriminatory animus."