Little Havana businessmen who won $63.5 million in Carollo suit, target city in new suit

Little Havana businessmen William “Bill” Fuller and Martin Pinilla have sued the city of Miami and several of its employees including City Manager Art Noriega, claiming the city used its considerable weight to try and destroy more than a dozen businesses operated by the men in the heart of one of Miami’s busiest tourist districts.

The lawsuit is essentially a carbon copy of of the case the two men won in federal court in July against Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo. That month, jurors awarded Fuller and Pinilla $63.5 million to cover reputational and emotional harm and to punish the commissioner for abusing city resources in an effort to force the men to close their businesses.

This time, Fuller and Pinilla are asking for business damages in excess of $60 million. And like the previous lawsuit, they argue the city and more than two dozen of its employees conspired to violate their right to free speech after they announced their support for Carollo political foe Alfie Leon back in 2017. Carollo won that election in a runoff.

The new lawsuit, filed this week also in federal court, names not only Fuller and Pinilla as plaintiffs, but 13 businesses they operate. And though Carollo is again named as a defendant, so are City Manager Art Noriega, City Attorney Victoria Mendez, more than two dozen other city employees and the city of Miami itself — which has considerably deeper pockets than the commissioner.

“Carollo and a team of city employees, from all departments, developed policy and implemented practices to selectively harass and target the plaintiffs and their businesses.” said attorney Jeff Gutchess, representing the Little Havana duo. “Carollo and the city manager have rewarded those that have agreed to do their bidding through job security and promotions, while those city employees who have refused to partake in the scheme or have exposed the illegal actions have either been demoted or terminated.”

READ MORE: Big, expensive legal loss for Joe Carollo. Jury awards Miami businessmen $63.5 million

City of Miami: Employees ‘doing their jobs ‘

The city responded to the lawsuit in a single paragraph, calling it baseless, an attempt to sway public opinion and claiming Fuller and Pinilla were simply trying to unnerve employees tasked with overseeing compliance.

“The plaintiffs are using the complaint to intimidate the hardworking and vigilant city employees that are merely doing their jobs under the law to protect residents and reputable business owners in the city. The City of Miami will review the complaint in detail, defend itself vigorously and respond appropriately in court,” the city said in a press release.

This is the third lawsuit filed by the businessmen against either Carollo or the city. Besides the the one filed this week and the one last summer, the men are also suing the city and seeking damages for money lost when their main business — the Ball & Chain nightclub — was forced to shut down after being repeatedly cited for violations by code enforcement during the pandemic. It has since reopened.

Carollo argued he was only doing his job representing the residents of Little Havana and that he was simply trying to keep the semi-residential neighborhood safe from loud music and protect residents and businesses from the hordes of mostly tourists who visit on the weekends.

The latest trial is not expected to go before jurors until U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith rules on a number of post-trial motions still pending from the Carollo lawsuit. Included in those are one in which the businessmen are seeking about $15 million from the city. Carollo has also appealed the case. No court date has been set for the lawsuit filed this week.

City ‘weaponized’ code enforcement: suit

The new lawsuit says Carollo and the defendants caused the loss of more than $60 million to businesses owned by Fuller and Pinilla and that the city should be liable because employees “knowingly carried out the targeting on Carollo’s behalf.” The suit claims the city “weaponized” code enforcement and other entities to target businesses owned by Fuller and Pinilla.

Fuller and Pinilla are the largest business operators in Little Havana and their businesses include the Calle Ocho Marketplace, the Little Havana Arts Building and The Tower Hotel.

The lawsuit also claims that while Noriega was running the city’s Parking Authority — before he was appointed city manager — he provided millions of dollars in sponsorship funds for Carollo-sponsored events. That, the lawsuit insinuates, led to Noriega’s appointment as city manager.

Afterward, the lawsuit asserts, Noriega helped Carollo “permanently destroy” Cultural Viernes, an organization that sponsored cultural events mostly out of Domino Park, where Fuller was president. The lawsuit also says Mendez worked with Carollo to force at least one of their businesses to close.

In its statement, the city also said the new lawsuit “casts a wide and unspecific net with 20 unnamed and unknown persons.”

Gutchess, the attorney representing Fuller and Pinilla, blamed Mendez for deflecting “the truth of this matter and instead engages in developing false narratives, all meant to protect her actions and those of her colleagues. Her office has deployed millions of taxpayer dollars, without oversight or citizen input, with an objective to saddle the plaintiffs as a way to ruin them.”